- All around the tech sector, AI is being celebrated, but some technologists warn that workers should beware.
- Kai-Fu Lee, a former Microsoft, Google, and Apple executive, predicts that AI will enrich a relatively few companies at the same time it takes over jobs once filled by people.
- The result will be that the rich get richer and the poor…
Artificial intelligence will widen the chasm that already separates the rich and the poor, warns a former Microsoft and Google executive.
The comments, made by Kai-Fu Lee during a panel discussion at the Artificial Intelligence 2018 Conference in San Francisco on Thursday, weren’t well received.
Of course not. The conference is partly a celebration of AI. The atmosphere among the many researchers and engineers who attended was one of back patting and self congratulations. And who can blame them? Through their efforts, the use of AI is beginning to change industry, and it’s only a matter of time, say many experts, before AI will begin to transform the rest of society.
But then came Kai-Fu Lee’s turn at the mic. An investor who previously oversaw businesses in China for both Microsoft and Google and who also worked many years for Apple, Lee cleared his throat and essentially took a sledge hammer to AI’s kumbaya moment.
First, he acknowledged AI’s many positive contributions, to the environment, healthcare and so on. Then, he said this:
“I think AI will exacerbate wealth and inequality…at the very bottom rank are the people, many of whose jobs will be replaced because they’re routine and AI will do their jobs for them, so it’s actually having a doubling effect on giving more wealth to the wealthiest, creating new AI tycoons at the same time taking away from the poorest of society.”
That’s not the first time someone has predicted AI will bring doom, but few techies talk like this and fewer still at an AI conference. Lee, who has written a book on AI, titled “AI Superpowers, China, Silicon Valley and The New World Order,” said he based his prediction on AI’s requirements. To use it effectively, one needs money, researchers and lots of data. Typically only the big companies or the very rich have access to these.
This echoed a comment issued earlier in the day by Meredith Whittaker, a well-known AI ethicist and researcher, who said that right now only around 7 companies possess the capability to build AI at scale.
“Think about monopolies, how they’re made and maintained,” Lee told journalists. “Typically it’s been access to resource, brand, technology or barrier entry, but now AI gives you more data which makes your product impregnable because you have built a better product. Even if someone else has the money and the brand they can’t beat you because they don’t have… all the data. This will naturally cause the early movers to get bigger.”
There it is. What Lee described is the existential threat that labour leaders and politicians around the world have feared and denounced. Many critics accuse tech tycoons of creating AI to replace workers and fill their pockets with the savings. The way Lee tells it, working people should be afraid.
Tim O’Reilly, whose company O’Reilly Media, organised the conference, was on the panel and he wasn’t having it. He politely rose to the defence of AI and said that he believed the technology would help empower the poor. Then, with the whole room in a funk, Lee was asked whether he thought there were any solutions.
“Well, the brute force solution is redistribution (of wealth),” Lee said, and he sounded cheerless. “Many of us hate to see that but Bill Gates talked about the robot tax. I think more seriously what he means is a very high tax for very highly profitable companies. Some people talk about universal basic income. I actually think that it’s a very flawed idea but it’s a very good start.”
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