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How tech giants are summoning Musk’s 'demon'

Chances are if you've used some of the most popular websites, you've used artificial intelligence.

Giants like Google and Facebook are ramping up their use and development of so-called machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence that leverages data and algorithms to allow computers to make predictions.

Google search results are more accurate with the use of machine learning, according a company spokesman in a phone interview.

For instance, a project dubbed internally as RankBrain helps make sense of unfamiliar search terms and produces more relevant search results, the spokesman said, noting that about 15 percent of all Google searches involve terms that have never been searched before.

And when Facebook suggests friends a user might want to tag in photos on the social network, it's using facial recognition technology backed by machine learning.

Intel has also been pursuing machine learning in its acquisitions of companies like Saffron, Indisys, Xtremeinsights and Altera, notes Wired.

But these companies' ventures could be just the beginning of a path leading to a darker side, one in which machines could be used for more destructive purposes, some say.

"I'm increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight at the national and international level just to make sure that we don't do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon," said Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX, at an event held by the MIT aeronautics and astronautics department last year.

"I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it's probably that," Musk said at the event.

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And recently, the Future of Life Institute, an organization backed by Harvard and MIT scientists, published a more detailed warning.

"Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people," read an open letter signed by the likes of Stephen Hawking as well as Musk.

Thankfully some tech company CEOs aren't as fearful that dire science fiction movie scenarios are becoming reality.

"People have painted these doomsday scenarios," noted Greg Cohn CEO of Burner, which makes a smartphone app that generates temporary phone numbers. "I'm not quite as much of a naysayer on that. I'm really excited about what AI can do for us," Cohn said.

"I'm very optimistic by nature, so I hope that AI evolves in a way with us in sort of a symbiotic relationship," said Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, a firm that helps fund early stage tech start-ups.