Whatever you may think of Elon Musk as an automotive CEO, it is impossible to dismiss him as a futurist and inventor. He has a unique blend of intelligence, vision and hard-nosed engineering knowledge that makes him someone we watch closely. And it isn’t just us; Neil deGrasse Tyson recently named Musk as the world’s most important technologist.
So when Musk started talking about his company Neuralink, which seeks to merge human and artificial intelligence, in an “Axios on HBO” interview, we took notice. Here’s the conflict between AI and humans as he sees it:
- AI is “just digital intelligence. And as the algorithms and the hardware improve, that digital intelligence will exceed biological intelligence by a substantial margin. It’s obvious.”
- He is critical of how little attention gets paid to this inevitability: “We’re like children in a playground… We’re not paying attention.”
- Regulation is unlikely to have much of an impact on AI’s rise because the former moves incrementally and the latter grows with Moore’s Law: “… if you have a linear response to an exponential threat, it’s quite likely the exponential threat will win.”
- Musk likens our position relative to AI to what happened to primates like monkeys and gorillas once homo sapiens developed: “They occupy small corners of the world – cages… zoos” and “that’s one possible outcome for us”.
So how does Musk see humans escaping the fate of the lowland gorilla or the chimp exhibit at the local zoo? His comments on Neuralink:
- The company has about 85 of the “highest per capita intelligence” people Musk has ever assembled in one business.
- The product will be a “a chip and a bunch of tiny wires” meant to provide the user with an “electron-to-neuron interface at a micro level”. Picture an iPhone grafted into your brain and you have the idea here.
- Musk’s big idea (because he always has one): “To achieve a sort of democratization of intelligence, such that it is not monopolistically held in a purely digital form by governments and large corporations.”
- His timeframe for all this: “Probably on the order of a decade”.
As much as all this sounds like science fiction, just consider how many times a day you touch your phone or a computer in search of information. The interface Musk describes simply widens the bandwidth between your device and your brain. Instead of typing a Google search, you just ask a question mentally and receive the answer from your connected self.
Our take on all this from an investment perspective: remember that at current valuations the S&P 500 discounts over a decade of future earnings (i.e. inside Musk’s horizon for the merger of human and AI intelligence). In 1970, or 1980, or 1990, one could be reasonably sure that the next 10 years would look roughly similar to the recent past. In 2018, that seems less sure a bet.
And while we don’t think it worth considering an investment landscape dominated by cyborgs just yet, Musk’s comments did spark a few more immediate economic considerations:
- We continue to worry about the next US recession and its effect of accelerating the adoption of labor cost-saving technologies. When the economy does slow, companies will likely see the benefit of replacing humans with ever-better technologies.
Ask any cyclical analyst: downturns are when companies make large-scale changes, not when times are good. In past cycles, that meant layoffs with the next up-cycle always seeing the rehiring of those workers. But when technology replaces those workers permanently, the next economic expansion may see much less incremental hiring.
- Graduates of 4-year colleges only represent 41% of the US workforce, leaving the majority more exposed to permanent displacement by tech-enabled applications. Whether it be online shopping replacing checkout clerks or restaurant ordering kiosks/tablets making waiters/waitresses redundant, technology will be replacing workers at an accelerating pace.
It’s not that college grads will skate by unaffected, of course. Plenty of their jobs will be at risk. But past economic downturns show this demographic to be far more resilient than the others. Even in the depths of the Great Recession, for example, college grad unemployment only touched 5% for one month. For those workers with only a high school degree, it topped out over 10% for over a year.
Summing up: technological disruption comes in many forms, some wild-eyed and some prosaic. We’ll let Elon worry over the first; the second is where we think you should focus.