“Computers start getting smarter than we are and eventually conclude that we’re not all that useful, and then either they’re drugging us to keep us fat and happy or we’re in the Matrix,” said Obama, who’s probably the first sitting U.S. President to drop a reference to a Keanu Reeves sci-fi action movie. “My impression, based on talking to my top science advisers, is that we’re still a reasonably long way away from that.”
But that doesn’t mean Obama is sanguine about the potential for artificial intelligence to cause its own brand of devastation, particularly when it comes to jobs. “If properly harnessed, [A.I.] can generate enormous prosperity and opportunity,” he added. “But it also has some downsides that we’re gonna have to figure out in terms of not eliminating jobs.”
Many of the building blocks for an A.I.-driven society are already in place. Uber and other tech firms have self-driving cars on the road in major cities, albeit in an experimental capacity. Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are making strides in bringing intelligent (or at least semi-intelligent) digital assistants into living rooms. Facebook and an army of developers hope that bots will integrate seamlessly into online conversations.
Obama thinks that government has a role to play in how artificial intelligence evolves over the next few decades, but he characterizes it as a “light touch,” at least at first. Once A.I. platforms become more sophisticated, more regulation may need to be introduced in order to prevent software from somehow running amok.
Throughout the interview (well worth a read), Obama takes a rather more upbeat approach to A.I. than some tech luminaries such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who have warned that artificial-intelligence platforms have the potential to rapidly go full SkyNet on us.
Musk, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and a handful of other tech executives recently created OpenAI, a non-profit “artificial intelligence research company” designed to create A.I. that’s friendly to humanity. Right now, the organization releases white papers and tools that encourage researchers to consider the ethical implications and challenges of A.I., including whether such software can accomplish tasks without inadvertently (or deliberately) harming its surroundings.
Whether or not A.I. platforms come preinstalled with a full range of ethical programming, it still stands to reason that the technology will end up eliminating jobs. Earlier this year, an analysis by research firm Forrester estimated job loss in the U.S. due to A.I. at 6 percent by 2021.
Take the case of truck drivers, which numbered approximately 1.8 million in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2014 reckoning. It’s not unreasonable to think that, within a few years, startups such as Otto could produce self-driving trucks capable of putting a very significant portion of those drivers out of work.
Many pundits think the markets will evolve in a way that allows humans to stay employed, even as A.I. takes over tasks once done by flesh-and-blood workers. After all, they argue, society survived the shift to automobiles, which put a lot of horse-centric workers out of a job, and the transition to computers, which likewise devastated a range of positions.
Given the radical potential of A.I., though, any transition will need to be managed carefully. That’s Obama’s overriding concern when it comes to the technology; hopefully it’ll occupy the thinking of the next U.S. President, as well.