There’s a maxim that “technology is neither good nor bad, it just is,” but that feels inadequate in the current climate. Big tech is facing a big backlash. AI and automation are upending the workforce. What happens at the edge where tech meets humanity? Are we better or worse off? One of our panels explored this in the Tradeshift Sanctuary at Davos Tuesday.
The speakers agreed that people are mostly better off. Statistics around malaria, infant mortality, and global poverty suggest we’re moving in the right direction. The more interesting question is where we’re headed, particularly when AI impacts jobs on a grander scale.
Kai-Fu Lee, chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures and a noted AI expert, says the next 25 years will be tough. AI has already been a multiplier for inequality, he says, and things will get worse before they get better.
“Those who harness the technology make a lot of money and become billionaires, while those whose jobs are displaced have to learn new skills and find new sources of income,” he said.
Only in 40 to 50 years will our grandchildren look back and say AI was a great thing, Lee said, because the workforce will have adjusted by then and no one will pine for routine jobs.
Andy Maguire, Group Managing Director and Group COO for HSBC, was more optimistic. Humans and machines are most effective when they work side by side, he said, and you won’t need to be “a 21st Century rocket scientist” to have a job.
There’s a larger issue, though, concerning the societal impact of tech. The populism that is tearing apart Europe and North America was fueled by “poorly designed supply chains” and their impact on the economy, said Christian Lanng, CEO and co-founder, Tradeshift
“If we don’t think about the social impact of the technologies we’re employing, we’re destabilizing countries,” he said. Businesses must ensure people have the opportunity to work, he said. “We’ve got to step up.”
Retraining will be vital, but it’s difficult to predict what skills will be needed next, said Laszlo Bock, CEO of Humu and former SVP of People Operations at Alphabet/Google. The safe bet will be soft skills like collaboration and communication, he said, because they’re “the most fungible across professions “and hard to replicate with machines.
Maguire agreed. HSBC is trying to build the “healthiest human system in financial services,” he said, because rapid change and agility require qualities like empathy, teamwork and communication.
You can think of that as tree-hugging, but it’s really capitalistic at one level,” he said.
As the economy shifts further from goods to services, technology will be a boon for developing countries, Lanng said. “Machine translation alone will probably do more for emerging market economies than any other standalone technology because it will allow so many countries to compete for services,” he said.
Technology has already allowed China to leapfrog the U.S., Laang said, and the West needs to wake up and “get over our shock.”
But Lee was concerned that AI will create wealth inequality at the national level as well. “The U.S. and China will be the primary beneficiaries because they own most of the AI technology,” he said. The AI superpowers must “take care of other countries and find ways to move them along,” or the whole world will be poorer, Lee said.
But Lanng has faith in competition. If countries are exploiting the margins of AI, he said, the Jeff Bezos’s of the world will “figure out how to make it available to everyone else, at much lower cost.”