Generally, I’m far less amused by Elon Musk’s tech ramblings — be they online or in-person — than his followers, who seemingly hang on his every word.
So Fox News’ promotion of a two-part interview between Musk and its white nationalist TV host Tucker Carlson didn’t excite me. So far, things have gone as expected: The first part of the interview that aired Monday largely featured Musk rambling as a seemingly confused Carlson nods along.
But Musk, who’s portrayed as a visionary by right-wingers, and even some Silicon Valley technophiles, proved his ignorance regarding tech in ample measure.
I worry that the cult of personality around Musk covers up some dangerous flaws in his logic when it comes to technology and society. And it seems to cover up some of his potentially nefarious motives, too.
But it seems clear to me that Twitter’s majority owner is on a public relations push designed to portray himself as a trustworthy voice on tech and a faithful steward of the platform users’ data. And this push is occurring as news reports highlight the harm he can inflict in an increasingly technologized world.
So let’s discuss.
The government can read your Twitter DMs, Musk says
“The degree to which government agencies effectively had full access to everything that was going on on Twitter blew my mind,” Musk said in the interview. He replied “Yes” when asked whether the government had access to people’s private messages.
The clip has been shared in right-wing social media circles to stoke fears of government encroachment.
And Musk’s claim might sound scary if not for the fact that 1) He seems to have provided no evidence to support it and 2) We already know that government officials — including local law enforcement officials — can acquire subpoenas allowing them to read people’s private social media messages.
But the fear-mongering is revealing.
Since acquiring Twitter, Musk has pushed conspiracy theories about Twitter’s previous leadership, including unproven allegations that the federal government — under the Trump administration, no less — pressured Twitter officials to suppress negative stories about Joe Biden in order to help Biden win the 2020 presidential election.
Musk isn't just guilty of falsity, but of deflection, as well.
Musk and his allies have yet to tell us why we should be concerned about the government having access to users’ private messages and data but shouldn’t be concerned that he has the exact same ability.
And as we’ve discussed previously, there’s plenty of reason to worry about that. Musk has silenced voices critical of him on Twitter, aided foreign governments in suppressing dissenters’ speech online, falsely labeled media outlets as state-affiliated and openly associated with brutal foreign regimes.
In other words, he’s not the kind of person you'd want to have access to your personal information. But all his talk about supposedly spooky government influence conveniently ignores this.
Last year, I even cautioned about Musk’s ownership of Tesla, a company also known to vacuum up huge amounts of users’ personal data. The point here was to suggest that we could look at Tesla’s management of drivers’ data as a potential indicator of how Musk, who's the CEO of the car company, would likely behave as Twitter owner.
So it’s noteworthy that several Tesla employees recently came forward to Reuters alleging that fellow employees used a private messaging system to occasionally share and mock “highly invasive videos and images recorded by customers’ car cameras.”
If true, that seems like a tremendous invasion of privacy that ought to spur serious distrust in the person leading the company. (Somehow, I don’t anticipate Musk and Carlson spending much time on the topic.)
Musk’s AI plans are either misguided or malicious
Musk also spent a portion of the interview talking about the future of artificial intelligence. He expressed fear that artificial intelligence robots are “being trained to be politically correct, which is simply another way of ... saying untruthful things.”
That right-wing claim runs counter to technologists who’ve noted that widespread failures in artificial intelligence technology — like the failure of some facial recognition technology to accurately identify Black women's faces — worsens racial and gender inequality.
Nonetheless, Musk says he is in the process of developing his own AI robots, reportedly known as “TruthGPT,” which presumably won’t be programmed to address these issues or others that commonly fall under the conservative umbrella of “political correctness.”
Musk clearly wants to be a power player in the increasingly influential AI space, and many of the people operating in that space have already warned about the danger he poses.
In the Fox interview, for example, Musk warns of AI robots obtaining human-like characteristics, and he and Carlson fret over the potential for soon-to-be-developed AI robots to "annihilate humans."
Musk and other Big Tech players have used similar claims to call for a pause in the creation of new, powerful AI robots.
But a group of AI ethicists has denounced these calls, arguing Big Tech players like Musk are using this language to distract from the issues AI already poses: like Twitter's algorithm, for example.
"It is indeed time to act: but the focus of our concern should not be imaginary 'powerful digital minds,'" the ethicists wrote earlier this year, name-checking Musk in the letter. "Instead, we should focus on the very real and very present exploitative practices of the companies claiming to build them, who are rapidly centralizing power and increasing social inequities."