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The Emerging, Unpredictable Age of AI

February 22, 2017


In a 1930 essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, English economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about the onset of “a new disease” which he called technological unemployment, that is “unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”

“But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment,” he added.  “I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is.”  Keynes believed that technological progress would lead us to a brighter future.  By 2030, people would likely work no more than 15 hours a week, and their biggest problem would be how to use their leisure and freedom from economic cares.

I was reminded of Keynes’ predictions while reading a number of recent articles on our emerging age of AI.  After decades of unfulfilled promises and hype, AI seems to be reaching a tipping point.  The necessary ingredients are finally coming together: lots and lots of data, with the volume of data pouring in expected to double every three years or so; advanced machine learning algorithms that extract insights and learn from all that data; drastically lowered technology costs for collecting, storing and analyzing these oceans of information; and access to an increasing variety of data-driven, cloud-based AI applications.

A small, but prominent group of technologists and scientists have warned that at some future time, a superintelligent AI might pose an existential threat to humanity.  But while dismissing such dire concerns, most experts worry that the real threat is that AI advances could lead to widespread economic dislocation and social unrest.  “Contrary to the more fantastic predictions for AI in the popular press, the Study Panel found no cause for concern that AI is an imminent threat to humankind…” was the conclusion of a recent study by AI experts.  “At the same time, many of these developments will spur disruptions in how human labor is augmented or replaced by AI, creating new challenges for the economy and society more broadly.”

There’s a broad consensus that AI will have a major impact on jobs and the very nature of work, but it’s much less clear what that impact will be.  Will the AI revolution play out like past technology revolutions, – short term disruptions and economic dislocations, followed by long-term benefits, as the new technologies eventually lead to the creation of new jobs, whole new industries, and a rising standard of living?  Or, is this time different, as AI-based innovations are now being applied to activities requiring intelligence and cognitive capabilities that not long ago were viewed as the exclusive domain of humans?  What will life be like in such an AI future?

While the future is nearly impossible to predict, opinions abound.  Let me discuss a couple of very different such opinions, starting with a recent CIO Journal interview with Vinod Khosla, among the world’s most influential venture capitalists.  Khosla believes that we’re entering a new age where AI will help companies reduce costs across the board, becoming a major competitive advantage, but leading to massive job displacements.  He predicts that in 20 years, perhaps somewhat longer, 80 percent of the workforce may well be replaced by AI-based automation.

In a related 2014 Forbes article, Khosla wrote:  “It seems likely that the top 10 to 20-percent of any profession, be they computer programmers, civil engineers, musicians, athletes or artists, will continue to do well.  What happens to the bottom 20-percent or even 80-percent, if that is the delineation?  Will the bottom 80-percent be able to compete effectively against computer systems that are superior to human intelligence?…”

“Even with access to better education and skills, not enough humans could adapt quickly enough to outperform intelligent software systems.  It seems likely that humans will lose this race against the machine in many, if not most, work domains causing a large shift in employment much like the transition away from an agrarian economy in the early 20th century.  First, we lost the physical labor battle to engines, and now, we may lose the mental labor battle.”

While acknowledging the potential for serious economic dislocations, a number of other experts are more positive about the long-term impact of AI,   Their views are nicely captured in a recent Newsweek article by author and columnist Kevin Maney – “All those dire predictions about the automated economy sound like a sci-fi horror film from the ’50s: Robots are coming to take your jobs, your homes, your children.  Except it’s real.  And it has a happy ending.”


Continue reading the full blog, from Feb. 7, here.