Milken Institute Global Conference 2019: Live updates

Longtime Milken Conference attendees will tell you that the artificial intelligence panels used to be in small rooms with low attendance. This year, almost every panel touches on it, and one discussion that focused on the ethics of AI occupied the main ballroom stage — with some sharp disagreements over the future it’s leading us into.

The underlying question: After a time period in which many waves of AI innovation displaced workers, only to create whole new industries that employ far more people than the ones they destroyed, is this time different?

Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist who runs the think tank Socos Labs, thinks so.

“What we’re envisioning is that people will magically self-realize, just because we have automated their job away, and they will become creative,” she said. “And that is not true. If we don’t invest in creating a society where people are empowered to be different, we will create a system in which people are empowered take care of old people for the rest of their lives, and they will resent it.”

John Kelly, an executive vice president with IBM, responded sharply.

“I totally disagree with that,” Kelly said. “I think there are people who love to take care of old people, and thank god they do. And I think AI will give them tools to take care of our elderly better.”

Pedro Domingos, managing director and head of machine learning research at the D. E. Shaw Group, also downplayed concerns about mass displacement.

“The argument is usually that this time is different because we’re automating intellectual work,” he said. “This time is not that time yet. The time when computers will be as good as humans at all these things, who knows when that will happen, but it’s not here.” 

Domingos and Kelly focused on the power of humans in combination with machines, which Ming agreed would always surpass the power of either a human or machine in isolation. But even human-machine pairings raise difficult questions. For example, Ming said, she has developed a device that increases cognitive function in mentally disabled children.

“I’m doing this work for kids with genetic brain injuries. But it will be commercialized. And there will be a cost associated. And parents who pay that cost, their kids will be 20 percent smarter,” she said. “If I turn my son into a cyborg, how will yours possibly compete? Feels like the run up to the financial collapse. You couldn’t not play the game.”

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