Why Are Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg Reading Utopian Sci-Fi?

Iain M Banks's novels feature superintelligent AI: Are Musk and Zuckerberg worried about getting replaced?

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Jul 10 2015, 2:12pm

Iain M. Banks Image: Chris Boland/Flickr

Two of tech's biggest names, SpaceX's Elon Musk and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, are reading speculative fiction by the late Scottish author Iain M Banks. What's with the sudden interest in utopian sci-fi?

This isn't the first time Musk has shown appreciation for Banks's writing. He's shown some love to Banks by painting the names of some of the sentient spacecraft from his books on SpaceX's drone ships, such as Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I still Love You.

Banks's brand of optimistic, high concept science fiction can be a good palate cleanser from all the post-apocalyptic stuff that's all the rage right now. But underneath that optimistic surface lies a society run by artificial intelligence that looks an awful lot like the one Musk has previously warned about.

Iain M Banks was the author of over 29 novels, but he's best known for his science fiction series, which follows a utopian civilization known as the Culture over the course of hundreds of years. The Culture is a super advanced, post-scarcity civilization made up of multiple humanoid species. It has all the trappings of a futuristic sci-fi utopia: faster-than-light travel, self-aware spaceships, nanotechnology, space habitats that form their own ecosystems and support billions, and highly advanced AI. Musk is reading a book from the series called Excession, while Zuckerberg The Player of Games last month.

The Culture has no central government, per se. Both day-to-day affairs and legislative decisions are handled by AI systems called Minds. Minds are an example of what's known in the field as "strong" AI: fully self-aware, terrifyingly intelligent, and possessing their own personalities. They do all the higher-level decision making and resource allocation in the Culture, allowing its flesh-and blood citizens to pursue their own intellectual pursuits or to just sort of generally jet about space at their leisure.

In the Culture, men like Musk and Zuckerberg don't exist at all

In this vision of the future, there are no genius entrepreneurial superstars like Musk or Zuckerberg. Minds are so far above the average capabilities of Culture citizens that humans simply step back and let AI run the show. There's no money, Minds provide every individual with everything they could ever want at no cost. It's the ultimate nanny-state, if said nanny was Rosie from the Jetsons fused with Skynet.

Image: Jeremy Keith/Flickr

As you'd expect, not everything going on here is perfect. The populous deals with the inevitable stagnation that occurs when there's no drive to really accomplish anything. Many Culture citizens get drug organs that secrete narcotics directly into their bloodstreams implanted into their bodies.

The possibilities, and problems, of superintelligent AI is at the heart of Banks's novels, so it's no surprise that both Musk and Zuckerberg have both been drawn to the series.

At Facebook, Zuckerbergis working on applied AI—an intelligent system that has a specific and narrow focus. In Facebook's case, that means identifying you in photos, or understanding what you share and why you share it.

Musk, on the other hand, looks at artificial intelligence as an existential crisis. He's donated millions to making sure AI is developed safely, and he's repeatedly said that AI can be "maybe more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Back in March he said that superintelligent AI might think we should be "captured and injected with dopamine and serotonin to optimize happiness. We'll be like a pet labrador if we're lucky."

Does that last bit sound familiar? It seems Musk is more than a little scared of humanity turning into the Culture. To be fair, Musk is very clear about his appreciation for the utopian parts of the civilization Banks describes in his novels.

It is fascinating to see what these men see when they look at the future of AI. Zuckerberg sees opportunity, a chance to leverage a tool to improve human interaction and profit. Musk sees cause for concern; a potential benefit to humanity that could quickly become a double-edged sword if AI turns on its creators.

In fact, Excession, the Banks novel he's tackling this summer, is all about what happens when the Culture Minds encounter evidence of a super-intelligence beyond even their own talents. In the ensuing confusion, we get the most quoted line from a very quotable book, with a glimpse at how a Mind that calls itself "Yawning Angel" thinks of humans: "Look at these humans! How could such glacial slowness even be called life? An age could pass, virtual empires rise and fall in the time they took to open their mouths to utter some new inanity!"

There are plenty of academics who don't believe strong AI is even possible, and if it is, it's a long ways off. Musk's reservations are entirely logical for the future of humanity, but maybe there's a more personal fear lurking there as well.

In the Culture, men like Musk and Zuckerberg don't exist at all, simply because society doesn't need them. The Minds take care of everyone, for better or worse, because they've reasoned that humans aren't capable of constructing a good society. If strong AI ever does exist, it might come to a similar determination. Maybe Musk and Zuck are scared of being replaced.