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How Can Humans Compete with Artificial Intelligence?

Jerry Hultin

By Jerry Hultin, Chair, New York Academy of Sciences Board of Governors

Machine learning.
Advanced manufacturing.
Autonomous vehicles.
Robotics.
Drones.

Welcome to the rise of smart machines! This revolution — let’s call it the Intelligence Revolution — offers the world benefit and harm at a scale exceeding that of the three earlier Industrial Revolutions. But it also raises fundamental questions about what it means to be human.

Will science and technology of the 21st century make us irrelevant? Will this lead to massive social unrest when smart machines take worker’s jobs? More fundamentally, how will a world operate where everyone may have the luxury of leisure, but not the economic resources to enjoy it?

In 2017, I chaired a study into the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on the Pentagon’s “business processes.” Based on what corporations in America have already achieved, we estimated that the U.S. Department of Defense could save nearly $60 billion a year by using the existing tools of automation and artificial intelligence. In addition, the quality and speed of decision-making in the Pentagon would be quantitatively better. Conversely we cautioned that the job losses and the redistribution of work functions would be huge. Thus the Pentagon would face a major challenge in finding jobs and providing training for the thousands of displaced employees.

According to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report on the growing role of automation in the workplace, at least 30 percent of the predominantly repetitive, routine and physical activities in 60 percent of current jobs can be automated. With efficiency gains and cost reduction of such magnitude the commercial, industrial, healthcare and construction industries will see AI and the automation that springs from AI, as compelling.

So how will the accelerating application of AI play out around the world? Here in the United States, the people most at risk include 14.7 million young workers, 11.5 million workers over age 50 and 11.9 million Hispanic and African-American workers. This accounts for more than 20 percent of the full-time employees in the United States. Amazon, which attributes the success of its one-day shipping to AI, is now committing some $700 million to retrain or up-skill its workers for the increasing technical demands of new jobs that will help them stay ahead of displacement by AI.

But what about a country like India? With a population over 1.3 billion, nearly 750 million young people under the age of thirty, and an overall literacy rate of 71 percent, India is striving to radically increase jobs and reduce its level of poverty. But India may not get this chance if automated technologies supplant available jobs. Much the same can be said about the future fate of Africa as its population of approximately 1 billion people grows to 2 billion by 2050. If Africa only has access to the educational and economic tools available today, the likelihood that it can match the growth rates of China and other Asian nations is remote.

The challenges presented by AI require a fundamental reworking of key components of how we learn and live. A recent Atlantic Monthly “conversation” between Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Dan Huttenlocher about the future of AI concluded with the following: The three of us differ in the extent to which we are optimists about AI. But we agree that it is changing human knowledge, perception, and reality — and, in so doing, changing the course of human history. We seek to understand it and its consequences, and encourage others across disciplines to do the same.

Fortunately, the Academy under Ellis Rubinstein’s leadership has taken seriously the importance of increasing scientific and technological skills among young people around the world. Propelled by his concerns about their future prosperity and security, Ellis enlisted the business community, NGOs and philanthropists, in an unprecedented series of cooperative programs designed to increase skills. Through the collective action of our partners, benefactors and Members, we can lead a global conversation to better understand, develop and employ the power of AI.

Thank you for your confidence in electing me Chair of the Academy’s Board of Governors. In future columns, I will pose other challenges that merit our attention. As an Academy Member, you no doubt have excellent thoughts about what a global conversation should explore, so I invite you to send your thoughts to me at magazine@nyas.org.

Jerry Hultin
Chair, New York Academy of Sciences Board of Governors