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AI at Web Summit 2016

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Last week Lisbon hosted its first Web Summit, which previously took place in Dublin. Lisbon was chosen for its strong infrastructure, the world-class venue and the thriving startup community. While the event had outgrown Dublin, Lisbon can easily handle the 50,000+ person conference. It has a metro, inexpensive accommodation, good weather and cheap taxis.

Unsurprisingly a hot top across the 4 day event was Artificial Intelligence and opinions were divided. Talks focused on the present and future of AI and what impact it would have on business. A total of 224 investors came face-to-face during the Web Summit – who together amassed more than $100 billion of investable capital – and 93% of them said that governments are not prepared for the coming of AI and the associated mass job loss. 53% of these said it was inevitable that AI will destroy millions of jobs.

There is a widespread concern that automation will negatively impact jobs. Oxford researchers estimate that half of all jobs are vulnerable to disruption from AI, robots and automation. Self driving cars, trucks and most recently tractors are literally round the corner and iPhone manufacturer Foxconn recently replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots. However, our whole economy is very much built on people getting jobs, getting paid, and paying taxes. Therefore, if half the world’s population are unemployed/obsolete there will be massive social change and it’s unclear how humans would deal with this.

Then on the other end of the spectrum Paul Daugherty, CTO at Accenture, discussed the idea that AI is not a way to create super men, rather a way to make men super. This camp believe that we are just warming up and there is potential to start fixing problems like hunger, poverty and illness. They argue that intelligent robots in human-like forms will surpass human intelligence and help free the human race of work. In theory all the status hierarchies will disappear and humans will be free from work and be able to move on up to a more meaningful, existence although it is unclear what this existence would involve.

Rodolphe Gelin, chief science officer at Softbank Robotics, believes that if humans do their jobs well there is no danger of robots causing massive job cuts, but the types of jobs we do will change. Robots should not be designed to do everything themselves, so it should be a case of collaboration between human and robot. Jobs will indeed be created because humans would have to look after the robots and developers will be needed to create the AI applications that will optimise the robots.

So it’s fair to say that opinion on what the future holds is divided and it really is too early to predict the impact robots will have. It is worth noting that Stephen Hawking has warned that alongside the benefits, AI will also bring dangers like powerful autonomous weapons and new ways for the few to oppress the many.

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