Does Silicon Valley have a moral responsibility to stop developing robots?

The debate about the impact of new technology, particularly AI,
on society continues to rage.

Last month, for example, the current front runner to replace
Jerry Brown as Californian Governor in 2018, Gavin Newsom – traditionally one of
Silicon Valley’s most vocal supporters – warned graduating computer science
students at UC Berkeley about the duty to “exercise their moral
authority” to improve society.

“This is code red, a firehose, a tsunami, that’s coming our
way,” he said about the impact of new technology on jobs and
inequality. So is Newsom right? Is the job of entrepreneurs and
technologists, in his words, to “exercise their moral

To answer this question, and to talk more generally about the
impact of AI on employment, I sat down with the co-director of
the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, Andrew McAfee.

One of the world’s leading authorities on the economic
consequences of new technology, McAfee is also the co-author of
the 2014 bestseller The Second
Machine Age
 and the just
published Machine, Platform, Crowd.

Three years ago, I interviewed McAfee and his co-author,
the MIT professor Erik
, about the connection between digital
technology and jobs. So what’s changed since 2014, I asked
McAfee about his findings in his new book. What has surprised
him most about developments over the last three years?

On the one hand, McAfee admits, “We all underestimate the pace
of progress” in the sense that things have changed much faster
and more dramatically than he ever imagined. But on the other
hand, he confesses, he admits to being surprised by the
surprising number of jobs that have been created by all this
new technology.

These jobs may not always be great, he admits. But they exist.
Thus far, at least, then, we have been spared Gavin Newsom’s
“tsunami” of technological unemployment. McAfee’s biggest
regret lies in what he see as the failure over the last three
years of public policy to get ready for the oncoming storm.

None of the suggestions laid out in The Second Machine Age
 liberalizing immigration policy or investment in
infrastructure, education and research — have been pursued. And
so, McAfee warns, we may today be even more vulnerable to the
darker economic consequences of the digital revolution.

Should Silicon Valley exercise its moral authority to stop
developing this job-killing technology? Here McAfee is
unequivocal. Absolutely not, he says. Over the next fifty
years, he acknowledges, the economy will become “massively
automated”, but at the same time society will have had half a
century to adapt itself to the march of the robots.

McAfee ultimately remains an optimist. Things are going to work
out okay in the long-run, he promises. In the end, we will be
able to control the tsunami that is coming our way.

Many thanks to the folks at the Greater
Providence Chamber of Commerce
for their help
in producing this interview.

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