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Majlis MBZ hosts lecture on future of jobs in age of artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence is not about to take over all human work any time soon, says MIT scientist

Abu Dhabi: Robots are not taking over your job, Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said in a lecture hosted at the Majlis Mohammad Bin Zayed.

Technological progress has been transforming the world and the way ahead is to find the appropriate way to partner with machines so that minds and machines can work together for the greater good of all. Artificial intelligence, impressive as it already is at certain tasks, is not about to take over all human work any time soon.

The lecture, titled 'The Future of Jobs in the Age of Artificial Intelligence', was held at Al Bateen Palace in Abu Dhabi and was attended by Shaikh Hamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chief of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince's Court and member of the Executive Council, a number of ministers and top officials, as well as other dignitaries.

During the course of his lecture, Prof McAfee, who has co-authored the best-selling The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, said robots were not about to take over all the jobs in the next five years, or even the next 10 years.

He was instead more worried about fear-mongering regarding AI subjugating human beings and taking over the world, pointing out that "worrying about killer robots is like worrying about overpopulation on Mars".

Until fairly recently, economies in the developed world had coasted along on something pretty close to full employment with technological progress fuelling productivity and job growth.

But starting around 2011, McAfee said, the engine of job growth had shifted into a lower gear even as productivity has continued to rise. Part of the reason is that our skills are not keeping up with technological advances.

Even so, McAfee said that there were a number of tasks humans remained better at such as the ones that involved the use of common sense, the ability to ask relevant questions and especially the ones that involve the use of social skills.

The MIT research scientist spoke in detail about how artificial intelligence had come to establish mastery over humans at games, starting with triumphing at tic-tac-toe in the 1950s to the far more impressive victory over chess world champion Garry Kasparov in the 1997. McAfee said that in the 20 years since, the gap has only increased between men and machines at chess.

But what has further implications for the new machine age is how in March 2016, a piece of software playing the strategy game of Go defeated the human Go champion Lee Se-dol. What the stunning victory showed us was that we are now able to build technologies that can learn on their own. If you show them enough examples, these technologies will understand the patterns. They will understand the productive rules and the strategies themselves and don't need to be taught by a human being any longer.

We will be seeing a lot of technology taking over tasks and jobs that used to belong to human beings. This might prompt the question as to why we still need (human) minds and where we fit into this. McAfee said there was perhaps even more place for human values and common sense in the new machine age.

He cited the example of the terrorist attacks in downtown Sydney in December 2014 where Uber responded to the sudden surge in demand from customers wanting to flee downtown Sydney by raising prices because the algorithms were programmed to do so. No human being, said the MIT scientist, would have responded in this way.

Human beings are also good at asking questions, McAfee said, recalling Picasso's dubious response on seeing computers for the first time. "They can only give answers," the painter had said dismissively. Voltaire had once said that a man should be judged by the questions he asks. Computers are still unable to pose questions, McAfee said.

Globally, the way forward is to put the obvious advantages of artificial intelligence to good use, such as in UAE's Space Programme and other endeavors calling for rapid technological progress, McAfee said.