AI: The promise and the peril

Artificial intelligence is here and its presence and associated disruption will increase in the future. Panelists at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium discussed ways to ease that disruption.

By Taylor Armerding
June 6, 2017


artificial intelligence in the workplace

Mommas, don't let your babies grow up to be truck drivers. Or pretty much anything that a machine or a robot could do, if you want them to have a job. The list of those things will continue to get longer - in some cases rapidly - extending well beyond the assembly line on a factory floor.

The forecast is not all gloomy - artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and automation are also expected to create jobs that will likely be much more interesting and creative than the repetitive tasks of the industrial age.

Indeed, it has been a growing component of cybersecurity technology, and therefore cybersecurity jobs, for several years. Former Symantec CTO Amit Mital (now manager at KRNL Labs), at a panel discussion sponsored by Fortune magazine in 2015, called AI one of the "few beacons of hope in this mess" - the mess being cybersecurity, which he contended is "basically broken."

That, according to a number of experts on panel discussions of AI at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium on Wednesday, illustrates both the peril and the promise of the technology. The enormous challenge, they said, will be to minimise the peril while maximising the benefits.

According to Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT and co-director of the university's Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE), AI amounts to, "the largest disruption in labor and the way we work," in generations. He called it the, "second phase of the second machine age," and noted that while he and his co-panelist, Erik Brynjolfsson, have written two books on the topic, "we don't know what's coming at us." The panel title was that of their forthcoming book: "Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future."

McAfee cited an example of the increasing power of AI from this week, when a computer program, Google's AlphaGo, defeated Ke Jie, China's top player of the ancient strategy game Go, after which Ke said this was no fluke - that the program's "understanding of Go and the judgment of the game is beyond our ability."

Brynjolfsson, MIT professor and director of the IDE, agreed. He said the "second wave," is machines moving beyond what they are "taught" by humans to learning on their own. "It is the most important thing affecting the economy and society," he said.

Those warnings were somewhat offset by assurances that while AI is already better than humans at jobs that involve "patterns," and will be getting much better, it is not even close to matching humans in areas like creativity, collaboration and even conversations - "smart" machines are still dependent on the datasets used to train them.

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