Fourth Industrial Revolution

The secret to designing a positive future with AI? Imagination

Stuart Russell
Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Center for Human-Compatible AI, University of California, Berkeley
Charles-Edouard Bouée
Senior advisor, Roland Berger
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  • Ongoing developments in automation and AI may, if left unchecked, leave most humans with no economically valuable role in society.
  • Imagination can be an overlooked ally in the battle for a more positive future.
  • The World Economic Forum Global AI Council experts and policy makers have met with science fiction authors and is organizing a movie competition to gain a range of perspectives and visions for the future.

Many physical tasks previously seen as un-automatable can now be performed by machines, from medical diagnoses to legal document drafting. Meanwhile, the need for remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic is converting complex business processes into modular, decontextualized tasks more amenable to automation.

Such trends are fuelling the growth of automation technologies and will spur large-scale, global changes, including 400 to 800 million lost jobs by 2030, according to McKinsey. Automation technologies may also exacerbate economic and social inequalities within a fractured and dysfunctional society.

Even optimistic economists anticipate a world that promises a high standard of living to all, but leaves few people with any useful role that is valued by others by today’s standards — in essence, life on Earth might feel much like a cruise ship experience, a world in which human beings are merely passengers.

For many, this kind of future would rob life of the very aspects that give it meaning. In order to avoid such outcomes, it is essential that we take steps to ensure an economically sustainable and desirable future for workers today, and for generations to come. To accomplish this, our most essential step is to tap into a quality we often overlook when discussing jobs and the future economy: our imaginations.

Seeking true vision

We must imagine the positive world we want to live in, the desirable future economy we think we want.

A desirable future economy will have several traits. It's one in which, even after many dramatic economic shifts occur, humans retain valuable and meaningful roles in society. This world would be economically sustainable, allowing humans to flourish while planetary boundaries are respected, and inequalities are minimized.

Focusing on the positive is key to steering toward a positive destination. Instead of being passive passengers in a collective spaceship erring towards dangerous planets, we can instead actively move in the direction of the outcomes we want, such as full employment and equity.

This is, at its heart, an exercise in vision. To be sure, realizing that vision will require a commitment to idealism, hope, and an openness towards change and uncertainty. But the vision is paramount and will set our future course.

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Tapping a range of disciplines

Building such a vision is a collective intelligence exercise that requires many voices from around the world. In taking this step, we can empower participants from various backgrounds and countries to make this vision real and identify the implications of that long-term vision for present-day policy decisions

Such work can seem like a creative writing prompt but was actually a key exercise undertaken by the World Economic Forum’s Global AI Council (GAIC), a multi-stakeholder body that includes leaders from the public and private sectors, civil society and academia. In April 2020, we began pursuing an ambitious initiative called Positive AI Economic Futures, taking as its starting point the hypothesis that AI systems will eventually be able to do the great majority of what we currently call work, including all forms of routine physical and mental labour.

Knowing science-fiction’s astounding accuracy in predicting both the advantages and challenges technologies can bring, we solicited the creativity of notable authors to give their thoughts along with policy makers and subject-matter experts in economics and AI. In a series of ongoing workshops, this diverse group of individuals discussed existing visions and their implications for present-day policy.

Running in parallel with the workshops, the non-profit XPRIZE Foundation is organizing a short film competition that challenges participants from around the world to showcase their ideas for a future economy, ideas that addressed individual aspirations and fears. This is the part of the overall project where imagination takes its full power.

Tapping visionaries from the creative, technical and policy realms ensures we tap in the full range of ideas for a new society. A true breadth of ideas is only possible by getting the perspectives from a range of disciplines.

Looking ahead

We stand on the cusp of remarkable change. AI and other emerging technologies are positioned to raise global income levels and improve standards of living for billions of people.

At the same time, as noted by various economists, many livelihoods will be severely disrupted. Previous industrial revolutions suggest that over time, labour markets eventually adjust to changes in demand for workers from technological disruptions such as the combustion engine. But there are reasons to believe that the Fourth Industrial Revolution may play out differently.

Much has been written about painful transitions that could be in our future. In our minds, less attention has been given to crafting and working toward a positive outcome. As we see it, it is much better to plan for the worst by planning and designing for the best.

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Related topics:
Fourth Industrial RevolutionEmerging Technologies
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