Artificial intelligence and robotics are among the biggest technological risks to the world, according to a report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), but with careful management, they could be a potent force for good. Chief Executive Officer discusses the dangers and benefits of this technology with Nicholas Davis, head of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ team and member of the executive committee at WEF.
Throughout the 1950s, as the US basked in victory against Nazism and eyed the Soviets across the Bering Strait, a new genre of American movie dwelt on the enemy within – not communism, but the awesome power of robots. Numerous films, with evocative titles like Robot Monster, panicked and fascinated audiences for over a decade. In one particularly memorable flick, Tobor the Great, the robot is kidnapped by foreign spies and sent into space.
The kitsch films are long gone, but robots and their dangers still preoccupy modern life. Hacks by criminals or enemy governments have already upset economic and social life, while Elon Musk has warned that AI might end up destroying humanity in a Terminator-style apocalypse.
The economic impact of new technology is also worrying. Bill Gates recently advocated that governments tax new technology to protect workers. The catastrophic impact of robots on traditional manufacturing jobs in developed economies suggests that these doubts are hardly unfounded. For their part, 70% of people in the US fear that robots will take over their lives, according to a recent poll by Pew Research Center.
But even as it ravages rust-belt towns, or gets undercut by criminals, AI has huge promise. By thinking thoughtfully about the risks, governments and business leaders have the chance to shape AI into a force for good, improving living standards and making more processes straightforward than those 1950s movies could ever have imagined.
Fourth industrial revolution
Nicholas Davis is in a good position to reflect on these opportunities. With a successful commercial law career behind him, bolstered by three years as director of Oxford Investment Research, he has plenty of experience studying the practical applications of AI. Now a member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum (WEF), he is able to champion AI to a global audience of politicians and businessmen.
Right from the offset, Davis’s enthusiasm is contagious. “It’s becoming clear that we live in a time in which technology could have a hugely beneficial impact,” he says. “[This includes] everything from consumer health and safety to the ability to empower social and economic development, especially in markets that are being left out of mainstream technology conversations.”
All of this comes in the context of the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’. If the first one used steam power to mechanise production, the second used electricity to mass produce consumer goods, and the third embraced digital technology, these latest developments promise to disrupt established work patterns with the help of AI and advanced robotics.
These changes are happening already, with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), which are areas of growth. “Industry is starting to experiment and engage with VR and AR in different ways,” Davis explains. “We’re increasingly looking at VR and AR as part of our office experience. While we might think of [them] as more suitable for entertainment, they actually offer a whole new channel for experiencing the world.”
More broadly, Davis is hopeful that AI and robotics can advance working conditions worldwide. “It’s exciting to think that those of us who are burdened with repetitive or dangerous tasks might have that burden lifted,” he adds. “We’ll have the opportunity to have more rewarding careers wherever we work in the world, whether you’re a factory worker in Taiwan, a garment factory employee in Bangladesh or an office worker in the UK.
“I guess what I’m most concerned about – and most excited about – is our ability to design and implement AI systems that actually give more autonomy and power to people, as opposed to determining what they do every minute of the day.”
Of course, the reality of AI can be less glamorous. The past few years have seen howls of protest from blue-collar workers who feel threatened by new technology. Even now, in a brighter economic climate, emotions are strong; 56% of the US population feel that automation wipes out more jobs than it generates. Davis is confident that the economy will balance out, even if change is painful to start with.
“We don’t want to prevent all job losses,” he emphasises. “Every new technology has affected labour markets, and there are some jobs that, frankly, are dirty, dangerous or dull, so we would prefer not to have people exposed to them.”
While people tend to measure automation’s success by the number of jobs it creates or destroys, meanwhile, Davis suggests this priority is unhelpful. Instead, “It’s much more urgent for people to focus on the issue of retraining, and preparing people to do different things in their current roles, than it is to worry about who might lose their job entirely,” he states.
“The vast majority of jobs will have about a third of their skills [done] by automation. This doesn’t mean that you get rid of the person. You have to think that a third of that persons’ time or activities are now [free], and ask how you can make the most of it.”
To illustrate his point, Davis cites a study from his native Australia. “Over the past 15 years, the data shows that Australians have gained about two hours a week [doing] more creative work, thanks to the investments that have been happening in IT and other systems,” he says. “We would expect this to continue, and [see] people shifting into more interpersonal and creative work.”
Business leaders need to nudge these changes along, Davis adds. “CEOs will require a new approach to leadership in the fourth industrial revolution,” he explains. “They will also need to be much more attentive to the interaction between talent, clients and technology, in order to develop and adapt their employees to a new context and labour market, and appreciate the way that their customers experience the world through the innovations they produce.”
If job safety is one area shaken by AI, cybersecurity is another. An AI-based attack crippled large parts of the internet in 2016, while experiments suggest that AI is nearly six times better at sending out phishing messages than human hackers. Davis is clearly aware of these difficulties. “There are multiple different cybersecurity threats in a connected world,” he admits. “As devices become more connected, you create more vulnerability and more opportunities for people who want to disrupt or hold you to ransom.”
“The other challenge is the fact that, as you connect more devices to the internet, it’s easier to take over those devices and use them to attack others. That’s really troubling; some of the biggest cyberattacks we’ve seen in the past year have been by people compromising internet of things devices, and using the computing power in them to disrupt other systems.”
Faced with all this, it is unsurprising that AI security is a major concern for Davis and his colleagues.
“Cybersecurity is probably the top topic for us,” he says. “It’s one of the things we worry about most at WEF. As a result, we’re building up our capacity and research on it.”
Davis is taking this message to the WEF, soon due to meet for its annual bash in Davos. He stresses that lawmakers desperately need to update cybercrime laws, especially given the international nature of the problem. “We are working on this issue due to the lack of international and cross-sector cooperation on cybersecurity,” he says. “To paraphrase Madeleine Albright, we’re facing 21st-century challenges with a 20th-century mindset, using 19th-century institutions.”
“Updating institutions – not just drawing on expertise from one sector, but allowing them to work together to create new sets of standards around AI – is incredibly exciting. I’m looking forward to discussing how governments, business and civil society can come together and discuss ways of governing emerging technology.”
Davis is similarly animated about the potential of AI over the long term. “In 15 years’ time, we’ll take for granted that AI can do a lot of things we’re now used to doing manually,” he smiles. “The obvious example is office workers; they’ll be able to schedule meetings and calls, answer emails in different ways, while [AI will be able to] anticipate their schedules.”
So-called ‘smart cities’ could make similar efficiencies on an even grander scale, Davis continues. “Smart cities are very much about digitally connecting different parts of the infrastructure,” he explains. “This involves sharing information, automating parts of the system, increasing efficiency, from electricity to other public services. By bringing people into proximity – in the way that cities do – you always create huge opportunities for innovation, ideas and the environment.”
At the same time, Davis hopes these advances can translate into a better life for citizens. “I think an efficient smart city in the future shouldn’t be measured by whether it’s saving more money, or if [administrators] are able to see CCTV images of a certain percentage of the city,” he says. “I hope that we’ll move from the concept of the smart city to the concept of the ‘wise city’. We’ll measure how satisfied the lives are of citizens in that city. We’ll focus less on the efficiency of traffic flows, and more around the ability of people to live and work together.”
Whether this actually happens remains to be seen. Previous industrial revolutions promised utopian futures for workers, but have kept many working in unpleasant conditions. Still, AI’s power should not be underestimated – something Davis understands just as well as Tobor the Great did when it was first shown in 1954.