The AI Threat Isn't Skynet - It's the End of the Middle Class
In February 1975, a group of geneticists gathered in a tiny town, Asilomar, on the central coast of California to decide if their work would bring about the end of the world.
42 years on, another group of scientists gathered at Asilomar to consider a similar problem. In January 2017, the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers walked down the same beachside paths as they discussed their rapidly accelerating field and the role it will play in the fate of humanity. It was a private conference but in recent days, organizers released several videos from the conference talks, and some participants have been willing to discuss their experience.
They discussed the possibility of a superintelligence that could somehow escape human control, and at the end the conference organizers unveiled a set of guidelines, signed by attendees and other AI luminaries, that aim to prevent this possible dystopia. The researchers at Asilomar were also concerned with more immediate matters: the effect of AI on the economy.
At a time when the Trump administration is promising to make America great again by restoring old-school manufacturing jobs, AI researchers aren’t taking him too seriously. They know that these jobs are never coming back, thanks in no small part to their own research, which will eliminate so many other kinds of jobs in the years to come, as well. At Asilomar, they looked at the real US economy, the real reasons for the “hollowing out” of the middle class. The problem isn’t immigration — far from it. The problem isn’t offshoring or taxes or regulation. It’s technology.
McAfee pointed to newly collected data that shows a sharp decline in middle class job creation since the 1980s. Now, most new jobs are either at the very low end of the pay scale or the very high end.
The rise of driverless cars and trucks is just a start. New AI techniques are poised to reinvent everything from manufacturing to healthcare to Wall Street. In other words, it’s not just blue-collar jobs that AI endangers.
In the end, no one left Asilomar with a sure way of preventing economic upheaval. “Anyone making confident predictions about anything having to do with the future of artificial intelligence is either kidding you or kidding themselves,” McAfee says.
That said, these researchers say they are intent on finding the answer. “People work through the concerns in different ways. But I haven’t met an AI researcher who doesn’t care,” Etzioni says. “People are mindful.” But they feel certain that preventing the rise of AI is not the answer. It’s also not really possible—a bit like bringing those old manufacturing jobs back.