Select quotes from the conversation on AI between Barak Obama, MIT’s Joi Ito, and WIRED’s Scott Dadich

I finally got around to reading this interview transcript. Dadich moderates an interesting discussion between Ito and Obama mostly around AI, but also touching on related issues around the impact of new technologies on business and people.

Below, I’ve excerpted some of the more interesting things that were discussed. Please take these excerpts as a reflection of what I am thinking about and worthy of further exploration.

AI in general, AI in particular
Here’s a man who has to keep the whole world in his head, and he’s really articulate about AI – where it is, where it’s going, what are the impacts, what are the benefits.

There’s a distinction, which is probably familiar to a lot of your readers, between generalized AI and specialized AI. In science fiction, what you hear about is generalized AI, right? – Obama

Obama rightfully points out that specialized AI, is being used everywhere today. But the AI from sci-fi, generalized AI, and the AI that everyone fears, is a long way away. Nonetheless, having that broader fantastical view gets us thinking of the implications AI has in all aspects of our lives, especially as it comes to how we deploy specialized uses of AI.

And, like a president should, while Obama sees the “enormous prosperity and opportunity” AI presents, he is also concerned with the impact AI can have on jobs and wages as certain things are automated by AI.

Ito calls for AI to be really called Extended Intelligence. This is a great term to describe what I have said before, that AI should augment humans, not try to replace them. And indeed, many jobs that have been more cognitive will be disrupted by AI. How we choose the balance between full or augmented automation will impact those jobs and people.

Low-wage, low-skill individuals become more and more redundant, and their jobs may not be replaced, but wages are suppressed. And if we are going to successfully manage this transition, we are going to have to have a societal conversation about how we manage this. – Obama

AI culture
I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that in the past 6 months, AI has gone from being in the background, to being front and center. As Ito articulates best, “this is the year that artificial intelligence becomes more than just a computer science problem.”

So it becomes important that the creation of AI have cultural and societal sensibilities. Yet, as Ito points out, “it’s been a predominately male gang of kids, mostly white, who are building the core computer science around AI, and they’re more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings.” How do we become more inclusive in adding values to AI, ethical AI? And what is the role of government?

Obama also mentioned that his concern wasn’t a runaway AI, but someone empowered by AI to do malicious things. Now the cyber security game just got more complicated. Interestingly, his view is not the usual ‘build a wall’ but the attitude of viral pandemics, a public health model – build a system that can rapidly and nimbly respond to an outbreak.

I think there’s no doubt that developing international norms, protocols, and verification mechanisms around cybersecurity generally, and AI in particular, is in its infancy. The challenge is the most sophisticated state actors don’t always embody the same values and norms that we do. – Obama

And where should AI research come from? Ito points out that a lot of AI research is coming from huge commercial research labs. Obama mentioned how these business want the bureaucrats to back off and let chase AI. But he then pointed out the benefits of inclusion of the public and the government in big technological advances.

I think we’re in a golden period where people want to talk to each other. If we can make sure that the funding and the energy goes to support open sharing, there is a lot of upside. You can’t really get that good at it in a vacuum, and it’s still an international community for now. – Ito

AI is all about automating intelligence. The industrial revolution was trasnformed with the automation of factories. AI will displace jobs, but, as Ito points out, “it’s actually nonintuitive which jobs get displaced.” We have already seen paralegal roles being taken over by text scanning systems. What will happen to lawyers, doctors, or auditors? How will AI take or transform their roles?

Both Ito and Obama talk about how these changes in jobs might require a redesign of the social compact – how to we value contribution and compensation?

What is indisputable, though, is that as AI gets further incorporated, and the society potentially gets wealthier, the link between production and distribution, how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated—the computers are doing a lot of the work. – Obama

We can figure this out
At the end of the interview, Obama mentions space exploration, which leads to using Star Trek as a guide for humanity’s future. Obama, ever the optimist, points out that Star Trek was not about science fiction but about values and relationships, “a notion of a common humanity and a confidence in our ability to solve problems.” He sees the spirit of America being “Oh, we can figure this out.”

Taking Star Trek further, Ito mentions, that the Star Trek Federation is “amazingly diverse, the crew is diverse, and the bad guys aren’t usually evil—they’re just misguided.” It is clear, this is an world the two of them are always working towards.

A thought
I am not surprised that these two great thinkers who have great hope in humanity, should gravitate to concepts such as cooperation, empathy, caution, and optimism. I, too, am an optimist, and have faith that the good in humanity will always prevail. Though, that faith require I remember to take a long term view, a view I am sure that guides these two men, and understand that there will be temporary moments of despair where it seems we are not heading in the right direction.

Geez, I wonder why I feel that way?

Go read the full article and see the video and let me know what you thought.