On the 11th of May 1997 Chess enthusiasts watched World Chess champion Garry Kasparov lose the sixth and final match of a novel but symbolic series. Kasparov lost this deciding match in just 19 moves against the IBM's Deep Blue computer in New York. For many is was the first sign that computers would one day be replacing and surpassing human in a wide variety of ways.
Almost 20 years on and it is no longer a novelty. Advancements in cyber-physical systems and artificial intelligence (AI) are reshaping our society, promising a world where machines can do almost any task that a human can do and, more often then not, do it better.
“The speed at which AI is improving is beyond even the most optimistic people,” said Kai-fu Lee, former Google and Microsoft executive in China, now a venture capitalist with Sinovation Partners, during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum. “Pretty much anything that requires 10 seconds of thinking or less can soon be done by AI or other algorithms.”
AI took center stage at the annual event in Davos, Switzerland, where more tech leaders than ever before chose to involve themselves in the political debate. The discussion focused on the impact that AI will have on our society, namely what the replacement of people with machines in the workplace will mean for jobs, livelihoods and inequality.
“There is not one more important topic for all of us than technology creating inequality and concentrating huge wealth in just a few people,” said IBM chief executive Ginni Rometty as she set out her “principles for the cognitive era”, an ethical strategy for AI.
In a nutshell, the factory replaces 99% of its workers with machines that do the same jobs quicker, with less errors, work for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and without complaining. After the capital investment the factory owner will be able to create huge sums of money, then buy out the competition as they can create surplus for a market shrinking because 99% of workers have been replaced by machines.
Some of the world’s greatest minds believe it is inevitable and that it has already begun: “The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining,” the world’s most famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, wrote in his column for the Guardian.
“This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive,” he added.
Some of the world’s other minds are not so concerned. “That is so far in the future, in terms of artificial intelligence taking over American jobs, we’re like so far away from that, not even on my radar screen,” President Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters during a press event last week. “I think it’s 50 or 100 more years.”
The Mnuchin-Trump stance represents a 180-degree turn from that of former US President Barack Obama. In the final stages of his presidency, the Obama administration released two reports detailing the looming impact of AI and the urgent need to create policies designed to deal with the tidal wave that such technology will send through the economy.
“AI has already begun to transform the American workplace, change the types of jobs available, and reshape the skills that workers need in order to thrive,” one of the reports stated. “Aggressive policy action will be needed to help Americans who are disadvantaged by these changes and to ensure that the enormous benefits of AI and automation are developed by and available to all.”
Others believe this shift towards AI in industrial internet of things (IIoT) context will in itself create jobs. “To capture the bigger opportunities presented by the industrial IoT,” according to management firm Accenture, “companies will especially need to look for skills in data science, software development, hardware engineering, testing, operations, marketing and sales.”
In three of the worlds 10 largest employers the reality is stark, however, and the numbers of jobs created pales into insignificance. 60,000 workers have been replaced with robots at Foxconn, a chief manufacturing partner for Apple, Google, and Amazon. The world third largest employer, Walmart, intends to replace warehouse workers with flying drones, and the No.1 global employer, the US Department of Defense, has been waging war with robots for years.
“If they aren’t worried about the effects of AI, robotics and other technological changes, then they’ve got their head in the sand,” said Thomas Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research. “We have to have a national strategy for preparing for the future of a more technologically driven workplace.”
Whether you choose to believe the predictions of former presidents or current presidents, tech leaders, analysts or scientists; AI is a potentially society-changing technology and there is a discussion to be had, sooner or later.
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