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Elon Musk surveys the future of technology during a fireside chat at the National Governors Association summer meeting. (C-SPAN via YouTube)

In the year 2037, non-autonomous vehicles will be as much of a curiosity as riding a horse is today, tech billionaire Elon Musk says.

Musk also says that the rapid rise of artificial intelligence is “really like the scariest problem for me,” and that the government has to set up something like the Federal Artificial Intelligence Administration before it’s too late.

The CEO of SpaceX and Tesla laid out his latest vision for the future of transportation, AI and space exploration over the weekend at the National Governors Association’s summer meeting in Providence, R.I. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, whose state hosts Tesla’s first battery-producing Gigafactory, served as the emcee for Saturday’s fireside chat.

Tesla and the future of autonomous vehicles were Topic A for the talk. When Sandoval asked what the shape of the automotive industry would be in 10 years’ time, Musk focused in on electric power as well as self-driving capabilities.

“Probably in 10 years, more than half of new vehicle production is electric in the United States, and China’s going to be ahead of that,” Musk said.

He said China is the “most aggressive” country on Earth when it comes to promoting electric vehicles, solar power and renewable energy – so much so that Chinese industries have been pleading with the government to slow down.

Musk was even more bullish on the outlook for autonomous driving, a field that Tesla has pioneered.

“Almost all cars produced will be autonomous in 10 years,” he said. “It will be rare to find one that is not in 10 years. That’s going to be a huge transformation.”

However, he noted that only about 5 percent of the nation’s vehicle fleet is replaced every year, which means it could take another 10 years for the self-driving culture to become fully established. In 20 years, he said, “there will not be a steering wheel” on the typical car, and it will seem anachronistic for a human to be driving a car.

“In 20 years, it’ll be like having a horse,” Musk said. “People have horses, which is cool. … It just would be unusual to use that as a mode of transportation.”

When Sandoval turned the conversation to AI, Musk reiterated his long-held qualms about the technology.

“I think people should be really concerned about it,” he said. “I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street, killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal.”

It wouldn’t take killer robots on the streets to pose a threat, he added.

“The thing that’s most dangerous is … deep intelligence in the network. You might say, ‘What harm would deep intelligence in the network do?’ Well, it could start a war, by doing fake news and spoofing email accounts and fake press releases, and just by manipulating information,” Musk said.

For example, he sketched out a theoretical scenario that could lead to the kind of crisis that arose in 2014 when a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 jet was shot down over Ukraine.

Musk imagined an AI with the objective of maximizing the value of a portfolio heavy on defense stocks. The AI might decide to stir up tensions by routing a passenger jet over an area of conflict, then sending an anonymous tip to combatants about the overflight of an enemy airplane.

“I want to emphasize, I do not think this actually occurred,” Musk said.

He said governments had to be “proactive in regulation instead of reactive,” because by the time AI agents started causing problems, humans would have a hard time stopping them.

To address the issue, the federal government should set up a regulatory agency now, and quickly “gain insight” into the nature of the potential threat, Musk said.

Musk addressed lots of other topics in his nearly hourlong fireside chat. Here’s a sampling:

  • AI aside, Musk said governments should be looking to prune back regulations when possible, and provide the proper incentives for businesses. “Whatever you ‘incent’ will happen … and so the economics should favor innovation,” he said.
  • Musk said rooftop and solar power will eventually dominate the energy market – a prediction that’s in line with Tesla’s business model. But he doesn’t see nuclear fusion power as playing a big role. “The sun is a giant fusion reactor in the sky, and it’s really reliable,” he said.
  • He’s concerned about cybersecurity for connected autonomous vehicles, especially a “fleet-wide hack.” Tesla’s autonomous vehicles will be built so that the driver can override any over-the-air commands that seek to take control.
  • Musk acknowledged that the high expectations from his fans sometimes get out of control. “A lot of times it’s really not fun,” he said. He also said Tesla’s stock price “is higher than we have any right to deserve” – a statement that he clarified today in a tweet:
  • On the topic of SpaceX and NASA’s role in space exploration, Musk said he was a big fan of the space agency. “In fact, at one point my password was ‘ILoveNASA,'” he said. Musk touted NASA’s robotic space missions, but said “to get the public excited, you’ve got to get people in the picture.” NASA’s goals should include putting a base on the moon as well as sending people to Mars, he said.
  • He also said NASA’s contracts with commercial ventures like SpaceX had to be on a pay-for-performance basis rather than a cost-plus basis. Otherwise, NASA would provide a powerful incentive for “cost maximization,” he added.
  • Musk said he “thought it was worth trying” to influence the White House from the inside by serving on advisory councils, but felt compelled to resign when President Donald Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. “If I stayed on the councils, I’d be essentially saying that it wasn’t important, but it was super-important, because I think the country needs to keep its word,” he said. “There’s just no way I could stay on after that.”
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