Weekly Meeting - January 15: Artificial Intelligence In the Workplace - Job Slayer Or Job Creator

Speaker: Kentaro Toyama is W.K. Kellogg Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information and a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before joining the Michigan faculty, he was a researcher at the University of California (Berkeley). In 2005, he co-founded Microsoft Research India [MSR]. He started the Technology for Emerging Markets research group at MSR; in addition to conducting interdisciplinary research to understand how the world’s poorer communities interact with electronic technology, it invents new ways for technology to support their socio-economic development. He is co-editor-in-chief of the journal Information Technologies and International Development.  He holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Yale University and received an A.B. in physics from Harvard University.

Machine learning is much in the news these days. It is a branch of artificial intelligence based on the idea that systems can learn from data, identify patterns, and make decisions with minimal human intervention.

It’s almost harder to understand all the acronyms that surround artificial intelligence than to grasp the underlying technology. Couple that with the different disciplines of artificial intelligence, as well as application domains, and it’s easy for the average person to tune out and move on. Doing so, though, would be a mistake. Automation is rapidly displacing clerical work. Robots are taking over the factory floor; they don’t need time off, require no fringe benefits, and rarely make mistakes on the assemble line. “The debate rages about which jobs will be automated,” noted Jamie Condliffe on p. B3 of the New York Times last November 25, “at what scale and where. For the most part, one thing is agreed on: Blue-collar workers who perform repetitive work are most exposed.” The next frontier, Condliffe went on to predict, will be white collar jobs. Artificial intelligence is about planning, perceiving, and optimizing results. Many math, science, technology, and business roles implicate those tasks — operating a power plant to maximize energy efficiency, for instance, or running an advertising campaign to minimize cost per click.” And these are exactly the things that [artificial intelligence] is best at.” At the same time, roles such as these also involve a large measure of discretion. That dimension has led Carl Benedikt Frey, an economist as Oxford University who specializes in technology and employment, to posit that artificial intelligence is “more likely to complement people in [such] jobs rather than replacing them.” Nonetheless, Condliffe posits the coming of a new reality: “[h]olders of bachelor’s degrees [will in the future] be exposed to [artificial intelligence] over five times more than workers with only a high school degree.”

Our speaker believes that what is needed most in a such a world of advanced technology is greater attention to human values:

“Technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces. Like a lever, technology amplifies people’s capacities in the direction of their intentions. You cannot expect a technology to transcend existing social forces or transform existing intentions; it tends instead to amplify whatever tendencies are already in place; for example, social media, which instead of transforming us into a newly informed global community, supercharged our existing biases for gossip, self-aggrandizement, and easy distraction.”

Modern society is consumed by a search for tools and quick fixes to achieve desired outcomes. Tools do not generate motivation, though, any more than a tread mill makes an athlete. The critical step is to be clear about intentions. When our intentions are focused, tools and technologies amplify our efforts. If we put the proverbial cart before the horse, technologies can amplify poor or indifferent intentions, sometimes causing more harm than good. The challenges we face are less about about picking the right technology to solve a problem, but more about identifying the right problem and having the willingness to address it.

Our speaker outlined this thesis in depth in his recent book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. He will provide us an overview of it this afternoon.