As A.I. Takes Off, We Need a Plan to Deal with Societal Disruption

Opinion

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recently stated that “47 percent of U.S. jobs have the potential to be automated.” The financial planning firm also said it anticipates “$14-$33 trillion in annual creative disruption impact in 10 years [which is approximately 25 percent of the global GDP], including $8-$9 trillion in cost reductions across manufacturing and healthcare, $9 trillion in cuts to employment costs via AI-enabled automation of knowledge work and $1.9 trillion in efficiency gains via autonomous cars and drones.”

While in previous technological revolutions, it was generally believed that those who experienced displacement were those without more advanced knowledge/training/skills, the AI revolution will cut across socioeconomic lines like nothing has done so before. Both highly trained professionals and minimally skilled workers are equally at risk to lose their jobs.

Which gets us back to the question of how will we deal with this from a societal perspective.

The first thing to note is that a) no technology since the beginning of time is inherently good or evil, and b) that technology, once invented, cannot be un-invented. We, as a society, need to make informed decisions about how we are going to deploy AI technology. The right decisions may lead to a prosperous future, such as that depicted in Star Trek; whereas the wrong decisions would likely lead to a dystopian future, perhaps one as bleak as depicted in Terminator.

These decisions are extraordinarily difficult to make. For many people, especially professionals, their self-identity is entwined with their career and how much money they make. What happens if they no longer have a career? What can large segments of the population do if there is simply no need for human labor? It has been suggested that providing everyone with a minimum livable wage and encouraging volunteerism is an alternative to labor—but is it? Such an approach will likely exacerbate wealth disparities, and historically, this has led to significant societal unrest.

Second, whereas many have touted the importance of a solid STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education, there is an increasingly important need for leaders to not only understand STEM, but also liberal arts. Engineers are more than capable of building anything asked of them; however, they must also have the training to be able to ask why and consider the potential long-term consequences.

Third, the national discourse must focus on the real issues that threaten to upset our way of life. The number of workers who will be displaced by the rise of the robots are countless and will not be stopped by any type of physical wall. The current “debates” about wall-building and limiting immigration are no more meaningful that rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic—we must get our leaders to address this critically important matter before it is too late. (And we have about a decade before it will be too late.)

In summary, 2018 will be the year of AI. Or, perhaps 2019 will be. Those predicting the rise of AI have been wrong countless times before and I doubt that I am any wiser than those who have made such predictions in the past. However, I can make two statements with certainty:

1 – In the near future, say within ten years, AI will play an important, and possibly dominant, role in our society and around the world.

2 – Unless we start taking action today, we will be unprepared for the rise of AI, and without proper preparation, the consequences will likely be undesirable for large segments of society.

 

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Gerry Roston serves as the CEO of Civionics, a University of Michigan startup that delivers intelligent sensor-based systems to manufacturers to help them minimize unplanned downtime; and as an Executive-in-Residence at TechTown Detroit, where he helps entrepreneurs transition their ideas into sustainable businesses. Follow @

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