I think it is going to be the suite of technologies that we label artificial intelligence and/or machine learning. So machines that can do things like understand what we are saying, talk back to us, get an accurate answer to a question, translate between human languages, do a lot of these things that we used to absolutely need people for. Technologies to me are demonstrating that they are adequate and in many cases excellent at these things.
In your TED talk you refer to algorithms that can write news stories. Are journalists at risk?
Journalism is one of those cases where the low end is at risk and the high end seems safe for now. The long stories I read, online and in print, that require research, synthesis and investigation, I don’t see computers doing in the immediate term.
Output will go up, quality will go up and prices will go down. This is an unambiguously good thing
However, they are already writing perfectly good earnings summaries, summaries of sporting events, a lot of things where you can give an algorithm basic facts and it will put together a perfectly good narrative of those – that is happening right now.
You’re asking two different questions. You’re asking, how will society benefit and then you’re asking, what happens to the people who are displaced by this technology. I think we have to unpack those two. On the question of how society will benefit, I find it a pretty easy question to answer. They will benefit in the same way they did from previous waves of really powerful technology. Output will go up, quality will go up and prices will go down. From any kind of economics point of view that is an unambiguously good thing. It means that more people have access to more stuff and that we get to live in many ways like the rich got to live a few generations ago.
I find it really hard to over emphasise how beneficial and how powerful that is going to be. It is why I tried to end my TED talk on a really optimistic note – we are going to have access to some amazing stuff. Some of that is going to be available to us almost no matter what our wealth and income levels are. A cute way to say it is that Warren Buffet doesn’t have anymore Wikipedia than I do. He can buy more Google stock than I can but he has very little additional access to Google’s resources than I do. This is pretty amazing.
The second part of your question is, what happens to people who are displaced? I am personally concerned about that issue. In previous waves of technology there has been a lot of temporary unemployment but it has always turned out that new companies, new industries and new needs come along for which we need people and the people who are displaced find new things to do for a living. So history would teach us to be very confident. The reason I am less confident this time around is that when I look at the total bundle of skills that a person might offer a workforce or an employer, all previous waves of technology have encroached on a pretty small percentage of that bundle of skills and almost not at all on the mental bundle.
Wikipedia is free but health care is still very far from free in my country
What I see happening now is the encroachment on that skill bundle by digital technology. That makes me less confident that history is going to be the same this time around and that all those waves of displaced people are just going to find new jobs and new homes for their talent.
No, the trend is pretty clear. The UK and the US are becoming more unequal over time. That trend is really clear and it’s bad news. I can’t find a good story to tell about rising inequality, especially when the people at the bottom aren’t just holding steady or growing more slowly than the people at the top, in many ways they are heading in the wrong direction. When I look at technological improvement, the kind of things that are coming, I see that trend accelerating and that makes me nervous.
So are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
There is going to be enough stuff to go around, that I’m very confident about. Because of these amazing technologies, materially, we’re going to have a very affluent society. The question is, are people going to have enough access to all that wealth? Because even though Wikipedia is free, health care is still very far from free in my country, housing is still expensive, and education in many areas is still really expensive, so even though we’re getting a lot more stuff and some prices are going down, that doesn’t mean we are suddenly freed from the need to have wealth and to have a job and income. Navigating this transition is going to be the big challenge we face. It’s maybe not something we face in the next year but certainly over the next twenty years.
What are you working on at the moment?
One of the things that I’m working on is a follow up book to Race Against the Machine with my co-author Eric Brynjolfsson. We are trying to lay out both halves of what we have been talking about here: the case for a great deal of optimism and then also some of the consequences and challenges that are going to come along with this era of astonishing technical progress.
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