Hearing that Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, how could I not begin this talk with his famous line, “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” The future is full of amazing things. On my way here, I spoke out loud to a $200 dollar device in our kitchen, and asked it to call a Lyft to take me to the airport. And in a few years, that car might well be driving itself. Someone seeing this for the first time would have every excuse to say “WTF?”
That of course is an expression of surprise and delight that stands for What’s the Future? But many lot of people are reading the news about Artificial Intelligence and are feeling a profound sense of unease. They are also asking themselves WTF? What’s the Future? But in a very different tone of voice.
They read that researchers at Oxford University project that up to 47% of human tasks, including many white collar jobs, could be eliminated by automation within the next 20 years.
They’ve head that self driving cars and trucks will put millions of Americans out of work.
I’d like to provide an alternate perspective.
Back in 1811 and 1812, a group of weavers led by Ned Ludd staged a rebellion, smashing the steam powered looms that were threatening their livelihood. Ludd and his compatriots were right to be afraid. The decades ahead were grim, as machines replaced human labor, and it took time for society to adjust.
But those weavers couldn’t imagine that their descendants would have more clothing than the kings and queens of Europe, that ordinary people, not just kings and queens, would eat the fruits of summer in the depths of winter. They couldn’t imagine that we’d tunnel through mountains and under the sea, that we’d fly through the air, crossing continents in hours, that we’d build cities in the desert with buildings a half mile high, that we’d put spacecraft in orbit, that we would eliminate so many scourges of disease! And they couldn’t imagine that their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren would find meaningful work bringing all of these things to life!
To understand the future, it often helps to look backwards. I want to start here, with one of the world’s most heralded inventions. Can you imagine the first woman (I imagine it was a woman) who built a controlled fire? How amazed her companions were. Perhaps afraid at first. But soon warmed and fed by her boldness. But even more important than fire itself was the ability to tell others about it! It was language that was our first great invention, the ability to pass fire from mind to mind.
The invention of movable type and the book led to remarkable flowering in the world economy, as the discoverers of the new could pass the fire of knowledge to people not yet born and to those living thousands of miles away. The internet was the next great leap. But the web browser - effectively the written word online - was only a halfway house.
Photo: Tim O’Reilly, The old War Department Library, Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Washington D.C.
I was reminded recently just how access to knowledge has changed when riding on San Francisco’s 14 Mission bus. I was sitting between two old men. I pulled out my phone to check where to get off. The old man on my right was agog. He’d never seen Google Maps before. The other jumped in eagerly, explaining that the blue dot followed our progress. I left them, one still in wonder, the other confident in the new reality, now demoing Google Maps on his phone to the other, who had never seen it.(photo of Bill Gates center at CM)
Think about it for a moment. Over a billion people can pull out a phone and see where they are and how to get where they want to go in real time. And that capability underlies on-demand services like Uber, and remarkable new startups like Zipline, which is delivering blood and critical medicines by drone in countries without good roads or accessible hospital infrastructure. Zipline’s first pilot was in Rwanda, but they are already bringing the technology back to the US. Imagine if FEMA had access to this technology right now!
GPS and Google maps illustrate what I call “the arc of knowledge.” We’ve gone from the spoken to the written word, to mass production of writing, to electronic dissemination via the internet, to embedding knowledge into services and devices. AI is simply the next step in that arc, feeding massive amounts of data into Machine Learning models to find new meaning in it and to enable new kinds of services. AI is not some kind of radical discontinuity. AI is not the machine from the future that is hostile to human values and will put us all out of work. AI is the next step in the spread and usefulness of knowledge, which is the true source of the wealth of nations.
It’s easy to blame technology for the problems that occur in periods of great economic transition. But both the problems and the solutions are the result of human choices. As we saw during the first industrial revolution, society suffers if the fruits of automation are used solely to enrich the owners of the machines, and workers are treated as a cost to be eliminated, or as cogs in the machine, to be used up and thrown away. But Victorian England figured out how to do without slavery, without child labor, with reduced working hours, and guess what, society became more prosperous. We saw the same thing here in the US during the 20th century.
It’s important to remember, that, as my friend, the labor organizer David Rolf, points out, “God did not make being an auto worker a good job!” We made choices as a society to share the fruits of machine productivity more widely.
We also made choices to invest in the future. That golden age of postwar productivity was the result of massive investments in in roads and bridges, universal power, water, sanitation, communications. Louis Hyman, author of Borrow: The American Way of Debt, pointed out that we went from 10% of homes in the US having electricity in 1930 to 60% ten years later, simply by putting idle capital and human ingenuity to work. After World War II, we committed enormous resources to rebuild the lands destroyed by war, but we also invested in basic research. We invested in new industries: aerospace, chemicals, and yes, computers and telecommunications.
We also invested in education. Education. Sociologist and author Robert Putnam once said “All of the great advances in our society have come when we have made investments in other people’s children.”
In the age of AI, we are faced again with that choice to invest in the future. Technology investor Nick Hanauer said ““Technology is the solution to human problems. We won’t run out of work till we run out of problems.” AI has the potential to turbocharge the productivity of all our industries. But making what we do now more productive, and sharing the fruits of that productivity, is just the beginning. If we let machines put us out of work, it will be because of a failure of imagination and a lack of will to make a better future! We must ask ourselves: What is impossible today, but will become possible with the technology we are now afraid of? “We won’t run out of work till we run out of problems.” Are we done yet? Are we done yet?
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s announcement a few weeks ago to fund an initiative that aims to cure all disease within their children’s lifetime is a great example of bold dreams. It’s hard to imagine that AI and Machine Learning won’t play a major role in achieving that ambitious goal. Already AI is being used to analyze millions of radiology scans at a level of resolution and precision impossible for humans, as well as helping doctors to keep up with the flood of medical research at a level that can’t be accomplished by a human practitioner.
And the White House Precision Medicine Initiative has already helped blaze that trail, with a vision of tailoring treatment to each individual patient. AI will play a huge role in precision medicine. We contribute our data; machines will help us interpret it. I heard recently from one startup that of the over 1 million full human genomes that have been sequenced, only 49000 have been interpreted. That’s a job for AI.
Perhaps even more exciting, we’re studying the brain and how it works, with the prospect of creating prosthetics that give their users a sense of touch, that allow direct brain control of devices, and even “brain prosthetics” to deal with neurological diseases!
How about Climate Change? Climate change is for our generation what World War II was for our parents and grandparents, a challenge that we must rise to or suffer dire consequences. Already in data centers, AI is radically increasing power efficiency. How do we rethink and rebuild our electric grid to be decentralized and adaptive? How do we use autonomous vehicles to rethink the layout of our cities, making them greener, healthier, better places to live? How do we use AI to anticipate ever more unpredictable weather, protecting our agriculture, our cities, and our economy?
Cybersecurity is another of our great challenges. And we are rising to it with the aid of Machine Learning. The DARPA Cyber Grand Challenge asked for the development of AI to find and automatically patch software vulnerabilities that corporate and government IT teams just aren’t able to keep up with. The problem is that an increasing number of cyber attacks are being automated, and as one knowledgeable friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous, remarked, “It takes a machine to get inside the OODA loop of another machine.” (OODA: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.) Image from https://www.cybergrandchallenge.com/press#photogallery
And as with every new technology, one of our grand challenges is governing our own creations. Kaiser Chief Medical Information Officer John Mattison once remarked, “The great question of the 21st century will be “Whose black box do we trust?” We have to ensure that we are transparent about the algorithms we create, and work to make them free of bias. We have to ensure that AI is not controlled by only a few giant corporations but becomes the common heritage of mankind. And we have to ensure that every data science and Computer Science training program has ethics and security embedded throughout the curriculum.
AI is a tool for human purpose, the next step in a long line that goes back through the ox and plough, the sawmill and the factory, the steam engine and the automobile, the airplane and the communications satellite.
Are we done yet? Are we done yet? What challenges lie ahead that only AI can help us solve? We must return again and again to the perpetual challenge: Can we hand off a better world to our children? Thank you very much.
What's the Future?
“…47 percent of jobs are
“at risk” of being automated in the next 20 years.” Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, Oxford University “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?”
“The New Deal’s Reconstruction Finance
Corporation helped light up America — moving it from 10 percent of homes having electricity in 1930 to more than 60 percent a decade later. [We] utterly transform[ed] the economy in about five years, by using idle capital.” –Louis Hyman Borrow: The American Way of Debt
Are we done yet? “
Technology is the solution to human problems. We won’t run out of work till we run out of problems.” –Nick Hanauer