B. Social and economic implications of AI
(RFI question 4)

Last updated July 28, 2016

AI systems are already changing the way work gets done. But history suggests that new technologies like AI result in higher productivity, higher earnings, and overall job growth. In particular, we believe that new companies, new jobs, and entirely new markets will be built on the shoulders of this technology. And we believe that AI systems will improve access to critical services for underserved populations. Overall, we anticipate widespread improvements in quality of life.

In order to be fully accepted into society, AI systems need to have significant social capabilities, because their presence in our lives has a profound impact on our emotions and on our decision making capabilities (e.g., elder care). AI systems also need to understand how to learn and comply with specific behavioral principles for aligning with human values.

AI systems are beginning to create new categories of work for people around the world. Future generations will benefit from this workforce transformation as the partnership between people and AI systems grows to tackle and make progress toward solving the world’s most enduring societal problems, from disease and drought to equal education and healthcare. Additionally, this transformation will improve access to critical services for underserved populations yielding widespread improvements in the quality of life for all of humankind.

However, like most major technological advances since the Industrial Revolution over 250 years ago, AI arouses fears that it will automate not just blue collar but also white collar workers out of jobs. These fears are historically unfounded and misplaced but completely understandable during period of acute transformation. To add to the fear and hype, the current macroeconomic climate is confusing the current rhetoric. Policy makers as well as organizations must find ways to overcome the hype, and to separate fact from fiction for their constituents.

Economists and social scientists are key partners in educating the public about how technological change impacts business and society. Ensuring that people, industry and organizations receive the full social and economic benefit of AI systems requires accelerating rather than restricting this new technology. That said, like with most significant advances in technology, new educational programs to prepare future generations to build, understand, and work with AI systems is essential to ensuring a sustainable and productive workforce.

Changing the way work gets done: We must have these important conversations about the changing nature of work, and they must be grounded in reality, not hyperbole. David Autor (MIT) wrote in a 2015 article: “… journalists and even expert commentators tend to overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementaries between automation and labor that increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for labor.” An OECD report stated: “Historically, the income generating effects of new technologies have proved more powerful than the labor-displacing effects: technological progress has been accompanied not only by higher output and productivity, but also by higher overall employment.” A recent Economist magazine report echoed these conclusions.

An example of the changing nature of work can be seen in the specify tasks performed by radiologists. AI systems will someday become more effective at reading an image than a person, but radiologists do much more than scan images. They communicate with patients and other doctors, evaluate medical history and prescribe scans and interpret results, among other activities. Radiologists eager to save lives and help patients welcome cognitive systems as they are already improving work flow and freeing up time to focus other aspects of their treatment roles and on helping patients make important life decisions.

Creating new practices and processes: As cognitive systems transform the way we live, work and make decisions, new practices and processes are created. These new practices and processes represent a complex system evolution of the hundreds of tasks that are unique to each occupation. According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute: “Very few occupations will be automated in their entirety in the near or medium term. Rather, certain activities are more likely to be automated, requiring entire business processes to be transformed, and jobs performed by people to be redefined.”

Cognitive computing is being used by firms to augment employee capabilities, not replace them. In a book on the cognitive era, Dr. John E. Kelly III, Senior Vice President, IBM Research and Solutions Portfolio, states: “Cognitive systems can make sense of the 80 percent of the world’s data that computer scientists call unstructured. This enables them to keep pace with the volume, complexity and unpredictability of information and systems in the modern world. None of this involves either sentience or autonomy on the part of machines. Rather, it consists of augmenting the human ability to understand and act upon the complex systems of our society. This augmented intelligence is the necessary next step in our ability to harness technology in the pursuit of knowledge, to further our expertise and to improve the human condition.”

Accelerating toward benefits: Ensuring that people, industry and society receive the full social and economic benefit of cognitive computing requires accelerating rather than restricting this new technology. We ask that policy makers focus on advancing programs that facilitate:

  • a realistic and fact-based understanding of the technology and its capabilities;
  • cutting-edge research on the workforce transformation including emerging new task/job opportunities;
  • progressive educational programs to prepare future generations to leverage this new partnership with machines.

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