AI could be hugely impactful on jobs but we can compare to past innovations and dot.com era

Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Chinese Internet search giant Baidu and co-inventor of the Google Brain, believes there are other, more immediate risks concerning AI that aren’t getting enough attention. “I think that the conversation is distracting governments and society from the real ethical issues facing AI,” Ng tells TIME. “And we shouldn’t whitewash these issues by talking about things that could be hundreds of years away.”

Highlights
* Andrew Ng (Baidu AI) thinks AI will have big impact on jobs
* Ng thinks 2017 will be year of the conversational computer
* Economist Hanson and other studies from McKinsey suggest the impact on jobs could be a lot less
* Attempts are made to compare the impact of AI to prior innovations (electricity, internet, combustion engine)
* If AI were going to displace 47% of jobs by 2035 then it needs to impact about ten times more than all driving jobs
* there should be a study and building stream of really huge successes and huge companies
* it seems like it would need to be ten times more than the dot.com boom

The Google Brain is the search giant’s research arm working on machine learning, natural language understanding, and other technologies that power many of Google’s products. Ng now oversees Baidu’s growing Silicon Valley AI research lab.

Between smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and the proliferation of chatbots on platforms like Facebook Messenger, tech companies are increasingly working to make computers better able to hold natural conversations with users. “I think 2017 will be the year of the conversational computer,” Ng said. “We’re seeing very strong data that this is coming.”

Ng believes that the key to unlocking a voice-controlled computing future is creating a software platform that will run across devices, similar to how Android powers lots of different gadgets today. “It won’t be one hardware device, it will be multiple hardware devices in multiple form factors.” Baidu has its own voice-friendly software called DuerOS which can answer questions and connect with third-party services in China.

Ng believes there are three areas that we should be worried about today: AI’s impact on human workers, information sharing among AI researchers, and honesty in AI software.

“Job displacement is so huge I’m tempted to not talk about anything other than that,” said Ng. “But I believe in honesty in AI.”

Ng shared an example: If a ride-sharing startup or food takeout service is using artificial intelligence to make predictions about delivery and arrival times, that AI tool should provide the most accurate estimate possible.

Openness is also critical, Ng believes. Artificial intelligence researchers often publish findings in academic papers to foster growth in the field. But hiding technical details in such reports “goes against the spirit of openness,” according to Ng. “If you want to publish data, you should do it to share knowledge,” he said. “You don’t have to share everything, but if you don’t want to share something there are different ways to talk other than [through] the academic publishing system.”

But the long-term impacts of AI will reach far beyond just the technology industry. IBM’s Watson platform is already changing the way doctors diagnose disease, for instance.

“We’re making this analogy that AI is the new electricity,” Ng said. “Electricity transformed industries: agriculture, transportation, communication, manufacturing. I think we are now in that phase where AI technology has advanced to the point where we see a clear path for it to transform multiple industries.” Specifically, Ng sees AI being particularly influential in entertainment, retail, and logistics.

Economist Robin Hanson considers the potential of Deep learning and the last Artificial Intellience to have an overwhelming impact on the world economy. He considers the 2013 prediction that about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk .. to computerisation .. perhaps over the next decade or two.

If AI could induce a change that big then they would be creating a value that is a substantial fraction of the world economy, and so consume a similar fraction of world income. It would in a short time become vastly larger than it is today. We should see an awe-inspiring rate of success within that activity. The application of these new methods should be enabling huge new revenue streams, across a very wide range of possible application areas. Stock values would spike far more than we have seen.

In 2011, McKinsey estimated that the Internet accounted for 21 percent of the GDP growth in mature economies over the past 5 years (2005-2010).

While large enterprises and national economies have reaped major benefits from this technological revolution, individual consumers and small, upstart entrepreneurs have been some of the greatest beneficiaries from the Internet’s empowering influence. If Internet were a sector, it would have a greater weight in GDP than agriculture or utilities.

And yet we are still in the early stages of the transformations the Internet will unleash and the opportunities it will foster. Many more technological innovations and enabling capabilities such as payments platforms are likely to emerge, while the ability to connect many more people and things and engage them more deeply will continue to expand exponentially.

In 2015, HBR looked at the internets economic impact

The technologies of the past had massive new job creation effects that swamped displacement effects. The Internet on the other hand has massive displacement effects that are overwhelming the job creation effects. In the past, new technological achievements created new industries that not only absorbed the displaced workers but generated opportunities for many more. The result was a vibrant middle class.

Consider the integrated circuit, which first appeared on the market in 1961. At that time, the worldwide electronics market was $29 billion. Today it is on the order of $1.5 trillion. The integrated circuit made existing products better. For example, vacuum tube mainframe computers were replaced by computers based on integrated circuits. The new machines were less expensive, far faster, more reliable, substantially smaller, and much more energy efficient. As a result the mainframe computer business expanded rapidly. IBM’s revenue increased from less than $2 billion in 1960 to over $26 billion in 1980. The integrated circuit also spawned new industries and applications that never existed before — cellular communications, PCs, tablets, and the Internet of Things.

The story of the internal combustion engine is even more dramatic. Not only did it create the automotive industry, but Henry Ford shocked the industrial world when he doubled the pay of assembly line workers to $5 a day. Ford reasoned that a higher-paid workforce would be able to buy more cars and thus would grow his business. Others followed suit. Ford’s action helped to create the middle class.

The Internet has made shopping more efficient and created more competition that has driven down consumer prices. But it has had little or no effect on per capita sales. Monthly retail sales adjusted for both inflation and population growth are below where they were prior to the 2008 recession — $165 versus $168 billion — and have increased by less than 10% in the last 15 years or about 0.6% per year. Meanwhile, employment in the retail and wholesale trade has dropped from about 21.2 million in 2000 to 19.9 million in 2010.

The reason Google, Facebook, and Twitter can pay them such large salaries is that the Internet companies are so efficient they can generate high revenues with few employees.

In 2013, Google had around 50,000 employees and generated revenues of around $55 billion in sales, or about $1.0 million per employee. The numbers are similar for Facebook. Amazon was running at a $74 billion revenue rate and had around 110,000 employees, or a little over $670,000 in sales per employee.

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