Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to be in Davos during the World Economic Forum for an incredible discussion on artificial intelligence (AI) put on by my MBA alma mater, Chicago Booth, and the University of Chicago. The panel featured Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, David Rubenstein, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Chairman of Carlyle Group, and Penny Pritzker, Founder and Chairman of PSP Capital and the 38th US Secretary of Commerce. The moderator was Raghuram Rajan, a Booth professor and former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Looking around the room, I noticed an impressive gathering of alumni and guests from around the world; in fact sitting behind me was the President of Baidu, who told me he had just come from an interview with CNBC.
The panelists shared their views on how AI will affect society with general agreement that AI could be used as an aid to humans rather than as a substitute for us. However, the challenge for society lies in how to best prepare us to accept the aid that AI has to offer. It’s important to build a bridge to what life can be like with AI (i.e less of the Terminator future).
In listening to the panelists, I was reminded of Carlotta Perez’s work on technological revolutions and their economic impact. From the railways to the mass production of automobiles, to the information/internet revolution, we have seen huge improvements in productivity across society to everyone’s benefit. However, with AI, we find ourselves wondering if we can improve overall productivity in the same relative manner? The mass production of automobiles, for example, led to increased labor production and trading. It’s easy to see how at an individual level people were able to become more productive as a result of the increased opportunities created through faster travel and improved connecting with others.
However, the productivity benefit for the average person is not so immediately obvious with AI (particularly with hindsight being 20/20). Will AI create a further divide between the haves and the have-nots, or lead to more pronounced differences in the opportunities available to people living in rural towns versus those in smaller cities versus those in large cities? Even big cities have to think about how to best prepare themselves for the future. While Amazon has announced the remaining 20 cities left in the running to provide the home for its new second headquarters, those cities that pitched and lost out are left wondering what this means for their own digital future (or at least how to improve their pitch for Apple’s potential new 2nd campus). Renewed effort must be spent on long-term planning for these smart cities and rural towns.
The other aspect discussed by the panel was the need for continued focus on ethics in AI. This is something that needs to remain central to the general AI discussion today and also as we educate and prepare tomorrow’s leaders. I’ve been reading recently Robert Ciadini’s book, Pre-Suasion, and thinking about how people are unconsciously influenced and persuaded. With AI and particularly the likes of how the new AlphaGo Zero learned on its own, it’s important to understand and have an open discussion about how AI will affect our behavior and interaction – both with the artificial intelligence and with each other. With the accelerated pace of innovation that we’re seeing, it just indicates how much today we need to make sure AI is developed ethically to avoid unnecessary biases/influences.
I still believe AI will be a benefit to society and make us more productive. What needs to be carefully addressed though is how we can make sure we ensure AI continues to move in the right direction to help society and bring benefit to everyone. The key is open discussion and debate. We need to continue to have ongoing discussions such as those occurring in Davos this week between our tech leaders globally and different governments. And as mentioned during the panel, find ways to encourage the best talent to not only work in industry, but also in government. Satya Nadella referenced his Chief Legal Officer’s suggestion of creating a Digital Geneva Convention to generate an accepted framework. We continue to need a legal framework on data usage even as tech companies continue to work towards protecting consumer data.