Friday, March 03, 2017

Reflections on the WGS - Diagnosis and Prognosis

“There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged - will ultimately judge himself - on the effort he has contributed to building a  new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”    
Robert F. Kennedy’s Ripple of Hope Speech 1966

In this era of Trump, Brexit and rapid technological change, Robert  F. Kennedy’s words are more apt now than when he spoke them 50 years ago. We too are cursed to live in “interesting times”.   The World Global Summit  (WGS) held in Dubai UAE 12-14 February could not have come at a more apposite time. Could ninety thought leaders in government, technology and the social sciences help our understanding of what needs to be done in 2017 to build a better world society?

1)  Diagnosis

“2016 was a difficult year”, admitted even that most positive of Prime Ministers, Tshering Tobgay  of Bhutan. Globalisation and new technologies have caused new wealth but also many losers. War, terrorism and migration have led to widespread fear and insecurity. Many ordinary people have lost trust in their leaders and institutions to the extent  that  the USA  elected Donald Trump as President and the UK decided to leave the EU. Add irreversible climate change  in to the mix and it is hardly surprising that a consensus emerged amongst the WGS thought leaders
             “The patient is sick and business as usual will not be the cure.”

2)    Prognosis

“We are at the start of the Fourth Industrial Revolution” proclaimed Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder of the World Economic Forum. Whilst the Third Industrial Revolution gave us the PC, the internet and the mobile phone, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will bring us intelligent robots, self-driving cars and 3D printing.

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber depicted an extremely  positive future of self-driving cars,  car sharing and consequent massive reductions in congestion and pollution. 

Yet to Nobel Prize winning economist Josef Stiglitz  the same scenario  appeared very worrisome.

“Within five years there is a belief all trucks in the U.S. will be self-driven … truck driving is one of the main occupations of relatively unskilled workers … and the worry is what kinds of jobs will these people, they have lost their manufacturing jobs … and they will now lose their truck driving jobs, what will the jobs be that society will be able to bring to them?"  White collar jobs will be equally threatened.  As Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk commented “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot can’t do better.”    According to a recent Oxford study 47% of jobs will disappear within 25 years.

But that isn’t all we have to worry about, according to Musk.
“I think we need to be very careful in how we adopt artificial intelligence and that we make sure that researchers don’t get carried away. Sometimes what will happen is a scientist will get so engrossed in their work that they don’t really realize the ramifications of what they’re doing.”

As he spoke I recalled the old Star Trek story where  a space probe programmed to sterilize imperfection  interpreted this as an instruction to destroy all living things. 

Elon Musk reminds us that it’s a lot easier to make AI really smart than it is to give it common sense and common humanity. 

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