Robotics, Artificial Intelligence
Could Transform Society, But at What Cost?
May 8, 2017
of the world's wealthiest and most influential leaders came to
California this week for the Milken Institute Global Conference, a
wide-ranging review of issues permeating economics and politics, with
topics ranging from agriculture to mortgage markets to international
trade and alliances, plus a long look at what the future will hold.
Of the 4,000 VIPs who attended — invitations are highly selective, and
tickets topped out as high as $50,000 — one of the most intriguing
questions under discussion was one that almost no one could readily
answer: What effect will robotics and artificial intelligence have on
our lives and on the world's business, and how rapidly will this next
technological revolution take place?
The Milken Institute Global Conference, an annual event for the past 20
years, has grown steadily into a unique gathering: individuals with the
capital, power and influence to move the world forward meet face-to-face
with those whose expertise and creativity are reinventing industry,
philanthropy and media.
This year's meeting in Beverly Hills, California, amounted to a peer
review of President Donald Trump's first 100 days in office. Four
members of Trump's Cabinet took part.
Former U.S. leaders
Former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Joe Biden also
were on hand to give their perspectives on U.S. politics. They were
interviewed by Mike Milken, the onetime omnipotent investor who almost
single-handedly developed the high-yield debt market in the United
States and piled up billions of dollars in profits during the 1980s,
from leveraged buyouts, hostile takeovers and corporate raids.
Milken, now 70, was known as the "junk bond king," and he ruled
unchallenged until 1989, when he was indicted on 98 counts of
racketeering and fraud. He served two years in prison and survived
personal health crises, and has rebounded in the 21st century to his
current status as a renowned philanthropist and public health advocate.
Interest rates and corporate balance sheets faded into the background
when the business and policy leaders turned their attention to
artificial intelligence, or AI, and robotics — key factors in massive
changes looming over the U.S. economy.
Unemployment in the United States is currently at its lowest point in 10
years — 4.4 percent — but jobs in the retail sector are drying up, down
more than 60,000 in the past two months. So-called bricks-and-mortar
retail stores are closing down in the face of competitive prices and
easy shop-at-home service provided by online retailers such as
Robotics have transformed the auto industry and many other sectors of
manufacturing, and the high-end analytics available through what is
known as "big data" have streamlined the entire process, from raw
materials to finished products. Both blue-collar and white-collar jobs
are becoming harder to find; opportunities in the services industry keep
overall employment levels high, but that also means a decline in average
Manufacturing jobs in the U.S. have been declining for decades, and that
trend is having an effect on society as a whole, said Roy Bahat of
Bloomberg Beta, a venture capital firm that is part of the financial
services company Bloomberg LP.
Costs are rising for health care, housing and education, and with fewer
good-paying jobs available, Bahat says those who "play the game by the
rules" — educating themselves adequately, buying a home and supporting
families — "still struggle to provide for an ordinary life."
Bloomberg Beta partnered with the think tank New America to look at the
future of work during this week's conference, with input from leaders in
popular culture, technology, faith communities, government and business.
They are due to issue a joint report later this month, but for now they
raised imponderable questions: innovations such as self-driving trucks
promise to change the way that companies move their goods, but how soon
will that happen, and what will happen to drivers and packers now
involved in such work?
The first large-scale commercial delivery of this kind was handled by a
startup company called Otto last year. One of Otto's autonomous
(driverless) trucks hauled 50,000 cans of beer for 200 kilometers along
a highway in Colorado, in the American West.
Otto's co-founder, Lior Ron, said self-driving trucks hold immediate
promise for American business, but he also admitted it was a carefully
prepared test: Highway traffic, especially in a state like Colorado, is
less challenging than traffic in cities, where pedestrians and
stoplights make driving unpredictable.
The ride-sharing service Uber, which already had been studying the
possible use of driverless vehicles, acquired Otto last year.
Most Americans tend to believe their children will have a better life —
or at least earn more money — than they do, but Bahat deflated that
notion: "If you look at the economic data, it turns out we live in the
first generation where kids are statistically likely to make less" than
Anne-Marie Slaughter of New America said projections about how many jobs
will be automated in the future vary widely, from 10 percent to 50
percent, and "we have no idea which of those [proportions] is true."
New America, founded in 1999, describes itself as a "civic enterprise
committed to renewing American politics, prosperity and purpose in the
Digital Age." It lists all of its funding sources, from "under $1,000"
to more than $1 million; the biggest donors tend to be philanthropic
groups and other foundations.
"We generate big ideas," New America says in a capsule of its mission
statement. "[We] bridge the gap between technology and policy and curate
broad public conversation."
To underscore the uncertainty cloaking analyses of technological change,
Slaughter noted that drivers interviewed for her group's joint study
with Bloomberg Beta believe that self-driving trucks will not be in
service for 20 to 25 years. By other estimates, she added, "It could be
five. Who knows?"
Challenges in an era of artificial intelligence include the need to
align technology with professional standards and social norms, Italian
computer scientist Francesca Rossi said. In other words, human
sensibilities must be integrated into machines' decision-making process.
Chin of the huge international banking firm Credit Suisse said his
company has employed 20 robots to handle complicated tasks including
answering bank employees' questions about how best to comply with
regulations on compliance and other banking procedures.
Bloomberg Beta's Bahat forecasts self-auditing accountants and automated
mortgage officers in the years ahead. Steering clear of explicit
predictions, he said workers and consumers must prepare for "wildly
unexpected" developments in the future.
New America's Slaughter offers a wry comparison between the rapidly
changing digital age and the Industrial Revolution. Harnessing the power
of machines for manufacturing and transportation transformed the world
and created lots of jobs, she said, but it also caused upheaval —
Marxism, wars and revolutions.
For those gauging the impact of the current technological revolution,
the New America analyst cautioned, "Do not think this is going to be a