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Futurist Martin Ford on the Danger of AI

Photo: Courtesy of Xiaoxiao Zhao

Robots won’t be taking over the world anytime soon, but the technology that fuels them may be coming for your job, threatening your data security, and increasing inequality. That’s the messaging of futurist and artificial intelligence (AI) expert Martin Ford, whose expertise has earned him numerous speaking engagement and book deals.

Ford, the author of 2015’s “The Rise of the Robots” and 2018’s “Architects of Intelligence,” wants more people to start talking about the implications — good and bad — of AI and robotics. “I think it’s going to be hugely disruptive across the board,” he says. “It’s going to have positive aspects, but there are also going to be some things we need to worry about.”

Understanding AI and its impact

While numerous definitions abound, the Brookings Institute defines AI as “machines that respond to stimulation consistent with traditional responses from humans, given the human capacity for contemplation, judgment and intention.”

That doesn’t mean AI will lead to a “Terminator”-like world, or one where our computers turn against us, even though much of our technology already is assuming human-like qualities and capabilities. “Right now, it’s the beginning of it from the consumer side and on the daily life side,” Ford says. “We’re already beginning to see Alexa and with smartphones. But so far, I think a lot of it is marginal.”

Immediate areas of concern are when systems that rely on AI begin to wipe out human employment. “Everyone thinks AI is going to hit blue-collar jobs, and that’s really not necessarily true,” Ford says. “There’s going to be a major impact on the kind of people who have a college degree,” like those whose work involves sitting in front of a computer doing relatively routine tasks. 

“I think it’s clearly going to have a huge impact on the finance industry,” Ford says. “You already see automated trading and you see CEOs of banks talking about as many as half of the jobs disappearing over time.”

Preparing for a future of competition with AI

Competing with robots for jobs might sound scary, but Ford compares AI to electricity, an invention that many people would argue has improved daily life across the board. “In the same way you would never ask, ‘What industry is most dependent on electricity?’ That’s kind of a dumb question, right? Everything relies on electricity. I think the same will be true of AI,” says Ford, who projects that AI will become universal in this way not next week or even next year, but in 10 or 20 years.

To reap the potential benefits of AI — including solving big problems such as climate change — preparation and more public discourse will be key, Ford argues. 

“AI is going to be the main thing in our toolbox to solve these kinds of challenges,” he says. “So the last thing we want is for it to be overregulated or for there to be some sort of public backlash against the technology. That tends to slow things down. I think that would be really unfortunate because I think it’s going to be the main force that takes us forward.”

In the near future, AI’s effect on privacy and security is a serious concern to Ford. The technology could reasonably be weaponized by terrorists or leveraged by hackers. Ford doesn’t dismiss the idea of AI posing a direct threat regarding robots harming humans, but urges the public to focus on those more immediate dangers. “I think this is going to be one of the biggest challenges we’re going to face,” he says. “For that reason, I think it’s really important that we have a discussion about what all of this means for the future.”

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