Tech Think Tank Gives Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking Annual 'Luddite Award'

These people are not afraid of artificial intelligence at all. Makes you wonder if they're working for the robots....

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In December, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a think-tank based in Washington, D.C. focused on the abstract nouns in its name, announced the 10 nominees for its annual Luddite Award, highlighting the efforts of people, companies, and governing bodies around the world to stifle technological innovation, adaptation, and implementation. The grand prize winners? Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, and Stephen Hawking.

Wait, what?

Technically, the ITIF handed their Luddite Award out to “alarmists touting an artificial intelligence apocalypse.” In their announcement, the non-profit focused on what they called a “a loose coalition of scientists and luminaries who stirred fear and hysteria in 2015 by raising alarms that artificial intelligence (AI) could spell doom for humanity.”

It’s a not so subtle reference to an open letter released In July that raised concerns about the potential for A.I. to commit atrocities on a scale that humans have never contemplated. And the individuals who signed that letter included the aforementioned names, plus other head honchos in the science and tech field like Skype’s Jaan Tallinn, Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, Noam Chomsky, and many other prominent scientists within the A.I. and robotics research community.

In a statement, ITIF president Robert Atkinson said, “It is deeply unfortunate that luminaries such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have contributed to feverish hand-wringing about a looming artificial intelligence apocalypse. He went on to say:

“Do we think either of them personally are Luddites? No, of course not. They are pioneers of science and technology. But they and others have done a disservice to the public — and have unquestionably given aid and comfort to an increasingly pervasive neo-Luddite impulse in society today — by demonizing AI in the popular imagination.”

As we reported on last month, it’s more than a bit ridiculous to call Musk and company luddites. These are the same people who eat, live, and sleep in the research and development of interstellar space travel, building human colonies on Mars, the bizarre and exciting inner workings of black holes, the implications of a post-language humanity, and much more.

But those things don’t let them off the hook. Much of the public is excited about A.I., but it’s also increasingly easy to find long spiels that rail on about how A.I. will bring about the destruction of all humanity. These concerns are real, but we’re nowhere near the point where there’s reason to think we could potentially bring about apocalypse via Skynet. I mean, just look at where we’re at. An open letter that predicts something like this only serves to feed and grow those public fears.

That hasn’t stopped Musk from moving to preempt evil A.I.. And that’s a good thing — these are discussions we ought to be having now rather than later. Labeling someone a luddite just impedes that meaningful discourse.

In any case, ITIF highlighted nine other luddite nominees that actually seem more deserving of the prize:

  • Advocates seeking a ban on “killer robots.”
  • States limiting automatic license plate readers.
  • Europe, China, and others choosing taxi drivers over car-sharing passengers.
  • The paper industry opposing e-labeling.
  • California’s governor vetoing RFID in driver’s licenses.
  • Wyoming outlawing citizen science.
  • The Federal Communications Commission limiting broadband innovation.
  • The Center for Food Safety fighting genetically improved food.
  • Ohio and other states and localities banning red light cameras.
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