Artificial intelligence poses opportunities and perils for future

October 8, 2018

Artificial intelligence (AI) makes it possible for machines to learn from experience, adjust to new inputs and perform human-like tasks. Computers, relying heavily on deep-learning and newly developed technologies, can be trained to accomplish specific tasks by processing large amounts of data and recognizing patterns in the data.

AI, sometimes referred to as machine learning, is a focal point of recent articles in various periodicals, including “What China Can Teach the U.S. About A.I,” appearing in The New York Times, Sept. 23, and “Why Technology Favors Tyranny,” appearing in the October 2018 issue of The Atlantic.

It is thus a very timely topic to be considered in West Virginia because as one author put it, AI “will usher in an era of massive productivity increases but also widespread disruptions in labor markets —and profound sociopsycho-logical effects on people — as artificial intelligence takes over human jobs across all sorts of industries.”

To their credit, the West Virginia Public Education Collaborative and West Virginia Forward centered at West Virginia University, in collaboration with, and financial support of, the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, will host a day-long, invitation-only forum in Charleston

on Tuesday, Oct. 9, having as its theme “Focus Forward: Preparing Today for the West Virginia of Tomorrow. Understanding the impact of machine learning on people, education, and policy.”

The first scheduled speaker scheduled is Mark Kamlet, Carnegie Mellon University professor and provost emeritus and global consultant. His topic will be “Understanding Machine Learning from an Economist’s Perspective.”

Dr. Kamlet will be followed by a number of speakers and panelists addressing various relevant aspects of the theme, including a panel on “Skills Machines Cannot Easily Replace.”

The timeliness and urgency of the Oct. 9 forum are evidenced in a book published last month and titled “AI Super-Powers China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order” by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, a native of Taiwan, who earned his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Dr. Lee is the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures and the president of Sinovation Ventures’ Artificial Intelligence Institute. Altogether, Dr. Lee has been in artificial intelligence research, development, and investment for more than 30 years.

While much of Dr. Lee’s recent book concerns the relative positions of China and the United States in pushing the envelope in advancing AI technologies and implementations, it also addresses the effects of AI on humans worldwide.

Lee concedes that he is frightened by “the real-world demons that could be conjured up by mass employment (resulting from advancements in AI) and the resulting social turmoil.” He goes on to say that “the threat to jobs... will not discriminate by the color of one’s collar, instead striking the highly trained and poorly educated alike... .[This] job-eating technology is coming soon to a factory and office near you.”

Later in his recent book, Dr. Lee observes that “Significant as this jockeying between the world’s two superpowers (with respect to leadership in AI technologies), it pales in comparison to the problems of job losses and growing inequality — both domestically and between countries — as AI will conjure. As deep learning washes over the global economy, it will indeed wipe out billions of jobs up and down the economic ladder: accountants, assembly line workers, warehouse operators, stock analysts, quality control inspectors, truckers, paralegals, and even radiologists, just to name a few.... I predict that within fifteen years, artificial intelligence will technically be able to replace around 40 to 50 percent of jobs in the United States.”

Dr. Lee is critical of the present day public education systems in the United States, noting that “they are still run on the 19th-century ‘factory model’ of education: all students are forced to learn at the same speed, in the same way, at the same place, and at the same time. Schools take an ‘assembly line’ approach, passing children from grade to grade each year, largely irrespective of whether or not they absorbed what was taught.... But AI can help lift these limitations [by] tailoring] the learning process to each student and also free up teachers for more one-on-one instruction time.”

In that regard, there is another recently published book that calls for a reshaping of our public schools, especially their learning/teaching model, by replacing the current emphasis on outdated substantive knowledge with the “four Cs’— critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. The book’s name is “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari, a native of Israel and currently a tenured professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Oct. 9 forum will conclude with the question “Where do we go from here: Translating trends to policy,” involving Presidents Gordon Gee of West Virginia University and Jerome Gilbert of Marshall University and persons involved in state leadership roles.

Formulating policy is not what the state does well. We talk and talk and meet and meet. However, we do not act, and act we must. West Virginia has a plethora of pressing problems: discrete, yet highly interrelated, which, in my view, can be most effectively addressed by, and under the auspices of, the office of governor, a position that exceeds by far any other public or private entity in its leadership potential (clout) for making things happen in our state.

Charles McElwee Is a Charleston lawyer.

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