Why a Leading AI Expert Is So Optimistic About Humanity’s Future

Why a Leading AI Expert Is So Optimistic About Humanity's Future

By Matt Schiavenza

Who’s afraid of artificial intelligence? A lot of people, it turns out. The late Stephen Hawking predicted in 2015 that man-made machines would, within a century, become more capable than people, making one wonder whether they’ll tolerate our presence on earth. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk — not one normally given to technological doom and gloom — is only slightly less pessimistic when he claims that AI poses a greater threat to humanity than North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

Even those who don’t believe machines pose an existential crisis for humanity agree that AI represents a hugely disruptive force for the global economy. Autonomous vehicles are likely to render professions like long-haul truck driving and taxi driving obsolete. Robots could replace humans who clean homes and wash dishes for a living. High schoolers from the mid-21st century may receive extra help from machine-based, not human, tutors.

These changes will present governments around the world with an acute problem: what to do about the millions of people whose jobs will disappear and never come back. According to Kai-Fu Lee, a longtime expert on AI, job-displacing artificial intelligence will force people to look beyond work in order to define who they are.

“We were all brainwashed by the Industrial Revolution-era value that our work equals the meaning of our life,” he said in a recent talk at Asia Society in New York. “Perhaps AI is a wakeup call, for us to realize that there’s something else. That there’s love, compassion, empathy, and human-to-human relations.”

That Lee himself is saying this is something of a surprise. The Taiwan-born venture capitalist and entrepreneur is known for his Herculean work ethic: When he served as president of Google China, Lee would wake up at 2 a.m. and again at 5 in order to check and send emails. “I did that so my American colleagues knew I was responsive,” he said. “And to set an example for my Chinese employees.” And in 1991, while his wife was in labor with their first child, Lee made plans to leave her bedside in order to finish work on a presentation — only to be spared this decision when his daughter arrived earlier than expected.

Lee’s perspective changed in 2013 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, which has since gone in remission. “I realized my priorities were upside down,” he said. “Whatever remaining days I had, continuing to work was no longer something I wanted to do. Much more important was loving the people I wanted to love, and giving back to the people who loved me. [I wanted to pursue] things I was passionate about.”

One of these subjects is artificial intelligence — a field that Lee has studied since his graduate school days at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1980s. In his new book AI Superpowers, he sketches a vision of the near future in which artificial intelligence transforms key economic sectors like transportation, health care, and personal finance. The typical office worker of 2040 — or perhaps even sooner — will travel to work via a public, self-autonomous vehicle that will not get stuck in traffic, cause accidents, or need to park anywhere. A patient displaying troubling symptoms will receive an accurate, instant diagnosis from a machine more knowledgeable than any human doctor. And a bank officer reviewing a loan application will consider more than just an applicant’s income and credit score: variables like one’s propensity to let a cell phone battery die, for instance, will matter, too.

In his talk at Asia Society, Lee said that the rise of machines in the workforce will allow humans to devote themselves to professions which depend on innate human characteristics like compassion and empathy. Far fewer people in the middle of this century will be employed as factory workers, for instance — but more will be needed in elderly care, a job that Lee believes cannot be performed by robots. “Elderly people don’t want a robot,” he said. “They want other people.” And while doctors will no longer dispense diagnoses, they’ll be repurposed as workers whose interpersonal skills matter more than medical knowledge — a medical therapist, if you will.

Managing this transition will require government intervention on a scale that is difficult to fathom. Policymakers in places like Finland have experimented with universal basic income (UBI), a program that provides no-strings-attached payments to everyone, regardless of their employment situation. Lee is skeptical that such an approach will be suitable everywhere and instead prefers government subsidies for modestly-compensated professions, like teaching, that will need to attract more workers. Either solution will require political cooperation that does not seem feasible in today’s hyperpolarized climate. But Lee is adamant that for all its potential for trouble, artificial intelligence will allow humans to transcend our current paradigm that one’s work is one’s life.

“I can imagine our maker is very frustrated with us,” he said. “After thousands of years of evolution, we’re stuck here, like rats on a wheel, doing the same routine jobs every day, and not spending time on what we’re passionate about and with people we love. …  Maybe our maker is so frustrated that he threw AI at us to take away all of the routine jobs, so we have time to think, and to love.”

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