Time to face up to reality and stop looking for scapegoats: automation is coming

An anti-trade, anti-globalisation narrative has grown to become one of the most important political discourses of 2016. But, we hear from former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, former president of the UN's General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft and WTO director-general Roberto Azevêdo, about a far greater problem on the horizon

On the day of the 2016 US elections, when Americans up and down the country were queuing up to vote for Donald Trump, three experts on world affairs gathered at Web Summit to discuss the reality we now live in.

José Manuel Barroso, former president of the European Commission, former Prime Minister of Portugal and now the non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs, was joined by Roberto Azevêdo, director-general of the World Trade Organization, and Mogens Lykketoft, former president of the United Nations General Assembly and former Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs. These are men that play or have played key roles in running our world, and it’s clear that they have serious concerns about the future we now face.

“Frankly speaking, we are now in a very existential fight globally between the forces of openness and the forces of nationalism, protectionism, chauvinism, as we see in American election,” summarises Barroso.

“We are seeing all over the world a backlash against globalisation, against trade. We are seeing protectionism from the voting in Wallonia in Belgium against the agreement in Canada – that has blocked an agreement between Europe and Canada – to the positions of the candidates in the United States election against trade in the Pacific region,” he adds.


Featured image courtesy of Web Summit

Azevêdo’s reasoning for this backlash is a familiar one. “Today in the marketplace there are feelings of uncertainty, feelings of being abandoned, feelings of being left behind and a sense of not enough opportunities out there.

“If you’re young, if you’re 20, 30 years old it’s one thing. If you’re [in your] late 40s, 50s and you lose your job, what do you do next? What’s out there in the marketplace for you? How do you support your family; where do you go from there?”

However, the focus on globalisation-driven trade and its role in job losses is not, Azevêdo argues, going to resolve the problem.

“I think that a lot of this blame on trade is just finding the easy targets, finding the easy enemy: it’s the different, it’s what’s coming from outside,” he says.

Automation is the problem

According to Azevêdo, the real source of our problems is staring us in the face; and it’s time we faced up to it.

“If we’re honest with each other and we look at the marketplace and we know what’s happening, it has nothing to do with trade,” he says.

“Two in 10 jobs that are lost in advanced economies today are due to trade and to imports. Eight out of 10 or more, it’s about new technologies, it’s about higher productivity, innovation.”

In summary, automation and other productivity gains are driving job losses and a lack of opportunities, and that isn’t something you can legislate against.

“Those things, you cannot fight them, you cannot be against them, you have to embrace them, you have to see that that is the future and to adapt and be ready for that,” urges Azevêdo, adding that there is far more to come.

“What are you going to do when you have a full-scale delivery of parcels by drones? Or when you have self-driven trucks delivering cargo?” he asked, adding that the first automated deliveries are already being made.

“Now in the US alone there are three and a half million truck drivers. Those guys are going to lose their jobs and it’s not only them, it’s all the roadside assistance, hotels, cafes, restaurants, service stations. What you going to do with all those people?

“Now don’t tell me a few years from now that you didn’t know this was going to happen. This is going to happen. And what do you do, how do you handle that?”

Politicians combating the wrong problem 

Amidst all the vitriol, politicians, the panel argues, have so far failed to face the reality of the situation, instead tailoring policies to a false cause.

If you don’t realise what the problem is, you will prescribe the wrong medicine, and the wrong medicine is protectionism

“If you don’t realise what the problem is, you will prescribe the wrong medicine, and the wrong medicine is protectionism, is stopping trade,” says Azevêdo. “You smother the chances of thousands of people.”

But ignoring trade is only part of it.

“I really believe that the missing variable is leadership, because we are seeing, including in Europe, that the leaders of the centre-left and centre-right parties are giving up to more extremist forces, including the very dark forces of nationalism, and we know in Europe what happened when nationalism was winning: the First and the Second World Wars,” says Barroso.

The panel agree that there is a trend of, as panel moderator Tom Nuttall of The Economist puts it, “the inability or unwillingness of some of our elected politicians to deliver hard truths to their electorate about the difficulties to come”.

But why are politicians failing to acknowledge automation’s impact on the job market?

“I think the politicians will get their way as long as the electorate is responding to the easy answer,” answers Azevêdo with nods of agreement from Barroso and Lykketoft.

“[Politicians] don’t want to give a complicated answer, and answer where you have to reform the whole system of education, training, skills, offering opportunities for small entrepreneurs, financing, investment for them. It’s much easier to say ‘oh it’s an import from that country over there’.

“At the end of the day they have to be held accountable and the people who can hold them accountable is the electorate. And the voter, at the end of the day has got to accept that finding the easy solution is going to cut it.”

What’s important to acknowledge, says Azevêdo, is that this is a problem that isn’t going away.

“Most of the problems that we face today are structural changes in modern society. I hear: ‘oh, the economy is going to pick up again’. That’s not going to change things. These are structural changes and you have to come to grips with that, and the political system has to respond to that.”

Globalisation for all

Whether we like it or not, globalisation cannot be stopped, and there will be job losses. But if politicians can face the fact that this is a structural change, the panel says, they can respond to the future in a way that works for us.

“Globalisation is going to happen, with the support or not [of] politicians,” says Barroso. “Of course it will be great if the political leaders try to have a human globalisation where we can defend some values, values that are dear to us in Europe: of human dignity, human rights, of social care.


“But at the same time the point cannot be to resist the wave of globalisation because globalisation is going to take place, so we need enlightened leadership, but I believe in democracy and I believe the pressure of our civil societies is decisive for having this kind of enlightened and active leadership.”

But in order to achieve this, we as citizens need to hold our politicians accountable, and make them face the reality we’re entering.

“Hold them accountable,” says Azevêdo, “It’s the electorate who has to inform themselves, have a more rational conversation about this and say look, this answer doesn’t convince me. We need much more than that, and that’s the first step.”

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”