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SXSW: Obama touts tech, others examine pitfalls

Lamont Wood | March 14, 2016
Government, the private sector and non-profits should work together to apply technology to address the nation's problems and to enhance civic engagement, said President Barack Obama.

As for the robots and artificial intelligence, futurist Jerry Kaplan assured attendees at another SXSW session that there is no reason to fear them -- physically. Economically, however, they may cause some disruption, he cautioned.

"That they can perform tasks that humans solve using intelligence does not mean they are intelligent," he told the session, titled "Robot Armageddon: AI, Jobs, and Inequality." "That just shows that the tasks were subject to solution by other means."

Kaplan reviewed the hand-wringing that resulted when a computer beat a chess champion in 1997, when a car drove itself in 2004 and when an AI system won the TV quiz show Jeopardy! In 2011. The systems were subject of what he called "gratuitous anthropomorphisms."

"Robots have no intent or desires... when you tell a car to take you to the office and it decides to go to the beach, then it will be truly autonomous," he said.

As for their impact on employment, he noted that robots automate tasks, not perform jobs. But when enough tasks are automated fewer people may be needed for a job.

He noted that, in 1790, 90% of jobs in the U.S. were in agriculture, while today less than two percent are -- yet most people are employed. "The pattern of new jobs taking up the slack will probably continue... but the cycle of job destruction and creation will speed up, and so job training also needs to speed up."

Those who can invest in new technology will experience most of the benefits, widening inequality if there is no public policy to counter the trend, Kaplan said. "But with the economy doubling every 40 years, we can encourage the more equal distribution of wealth without stealing from the rich to give to the poor," he said.

Ironically, a couple of hours before President Obama called for a tech partnership with the federal government, two big-city mayors cited successful uses of data at the municipal level, where the public has come to expect immediate results -- and said the federal government was typically too tied up in ideology to do the same thing.

Sly James, the mayor of Kansas City, told the "Betting Living through Data and Evidence" session about people in his city using data to map blighted areas and to address abandoned buildings. And while his city had long conducted satisfaction surveys, they found ways of turning the data into a feedback loop to enhance the performance of various projects.

"None of this matters as much as a collaborative relationship with your city staff," he added. "I had to show them that data would help them do their jobs. They could see the increased satisfaction, and now we have a tight-knit team that loves data -- wallows in it," James said.


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