Elon Musk’s Call for Artificial Intelligence Rules Faces Trump Realities


Elon Musk

What could save humanity from the existential threat of killer robot domination?

Government regulation, says Elon Musk.

At a July 15 conference of U.S. governors, Musk painted a dark vision of how artificial intelligence or AI, an umbrella term for emerging technologies that involve human-like learning and reasoning skills, will soon threaten every human job and possibly instigate wars.

“AI’s a rare case where we need to be proactive in regulation instead of reactive,” the co-founder and CEO of Tesla Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, said at the National Governors Association event. 

Artificial intelligence is already integrated in platforms like Alphabet Inc. Google’s web search and digital personal assistances like Amazon.com Inc.’s Echo. The technology is set to weave itself further into everyday uses in the coming years with its applications in autonomous vehicles, law firms and healthcare.

Regulators need to slow this process down with industry-wide moratoriums on AI development to make sure it’s safe, Musk told governors. The first order of business is to set up a new regulatory agency to study the status of AI development, then put regulations in place to ensure public safety, he said.

Still, setting up a new federal agency is a daunting task, and arguably even more so now during the fervently anti-regulatory Trump administration. Musk stepped down as a business advisor to President Donald Trump in June after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.

Former President Barack Obama sought suggestions on potential policy shifts needed to prepare society for AI, but Trump has yet to appoint a director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy or fully staff it.

A push from an existing federal agency to regulate AI also seems unlikely. Trump’s Jan. 30 executive order calls for agencies to repeal two regulations for every new rule issued.

Agency jurisdiction on AI is also unclear. A Stanford University study on artificial intelligence released last year identified over a dozen agencies that may potentially create regulations for the technology, depending on how it is being used.

There is the possibility that Musk’s comments to a room full of governors could spur a wave of state-level laws surrounding AI in the absence of federal regulations, as has been the case for other emerging technologies like drones and self-driving cars.

Currently, 56 laws have passed or been introduced by 18 state legislatures, plus the District of Columbia, on AI, according to Bloomberg Government data. But many have to do with its use in autonomous vehicle licensing or to promote research initiatives.