THE BLOG

Is A.I. Looming?

02/10/2015 09:51 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

Our most famous citizens have been speaking about A.I. and the future of Homo Sapiens. Let's recap:

Elon Musk: If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it's probably [Artificial Intelligence]
Bill Gates: I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don't understand why some people are not concerned.

Turning from the existential to the incremental, still others have been explaining just how consistent advances in robotics and A.I. can cause general underemployment. On this front:

Larry Summers: [T]he trends are all in the wrong direction, particularly for the less skilled, as the capacity of capital embodying artificial intelligence to replace white-collar as well as blue-collar work will increase rapidly in the years ahead.
McAfee and Brynjolfsson: Well, just read The Second Machine Age.

But then there are those who point out that we survived the Industrial Revolution, and therefore the future may well be rosy:

Eric Schmidt: Go back to the history of the loom. There was absolute dislocation, he said, but I think all of us are better off with more mechanized ways of getting clothes made.

So what are we to make of all this punditry? First of all, let's take on history. I frequently hear talk of Luddites and looms, and that all that proves that A.I. and technological underemployment are just fine: after all, we will innovate our way into a bright future thanks to computers, technology and the Age of Plenty. Let me just tell the story of Andrew Carnegie in this regard. His father, William Carnegie, was a weaver in Scotland, and the combination of war, poverty and unemployment thanks to new loom technology created a world with no hope for them in Dunfermline. Their solution was to move to the United States- to Pittsburgh- and thanks to that age of mechanization, I get to profess at Carnegie Mellon University. But to suggest that the Industrial Revolution was great for society, writ large, is to miss the fact that multi-generational starvation and poverty infiltrated the industrialized lands of our ancestors. Let's please stop using the cotton gin to justify A.I. and robotics since we definitely do not wish for our future to emulate that past.

Then there is the question of existential threats. Will A.I. take over our world, topping us out of power and out of existence before we can find the off switch? I submit that this question stems from a failure of imagination. The dangers lurking in our future do not arise from robot consciousness and revolution. Our future threats are the very same as our past threats: human greed and corruption. A.I. and robots are nothing more than tools that further concentrate our age's currency in the hands of a few: digital information, digital knowledge, massive behavioral tracking. It is people that we need to fear, armed with the knowledge weapons that robots might become. Several very wealthy individuals are investing in the analysis of our existential threat from post-singularity robotics. I wish a few of these individuals would consider investing instead in educating our children concerning ethics and technology. That road is right before us and will impact society, not in twenty or two hundred years, but today and tomorrow.