CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The robots are coming! The robots are coming! But maybe that's OK.
Rob High, IBM's chief technology officer for Watson, on Saturday urged an audience of industry elites, academics and press to consider how artificial intelligence technology should improve -- rather than replace -- the human experience.
AI can help people became more efficient, creative and informed, High suggested during a keynote speech at the MIT Tech Conference.
"It's not about answering the question, it's about helping you come up with the questions you're not thinking to ask," High said.
Take Watson, for example. It's a technology platform geared toward using a vast amount of data to produce intelligent responses to some of the biggest human problems, like cancer treatment.
No one human could possibly read every medical journal out there, but Watson is being trained to ingest that information and produce smart solutions based on specific data -- a patient's background and symptoms, for example.
That's a true partnership between humans and AI. Watson takes information that people produce, considers a variety of factors and provides knowledge that is then used to help a human doctor do their job better. But Watson is not a replacement for an actual doctor.
There are concerns that robots are coming for our jobs, though. Meet Pepper, a Japanese robot that's able to function as an intelligent sales representative.
In a video High included in his presentation, Pepper interacts with a man who wants to buy a cheap television. She up-sells him and suggests a cutting edge 4K TV instead. (Yes, this is real life.)
The man asks the robot if channels are even broadcasting in 4K yet. The robot considers the question and responds with several stations that, indeed, broadcast in 4K.
That's cool, but there's an obvious dark side. A store like Best Buy could theoretically populate its TV section with a couple of Peppers someday, rather than pay a regular wage to human employees.
“We as a society have a role and responsibility for deciding how we want [artificial intelligence] to affect us.”
The Huffington Post asked High about concerns that a robot like AI could steal human jobs. He said, of course, that he doesn't have the answer. But he said it's absolutely a question society will have to grapple with in the near future.
"We, not just as a set of engineers a set of scientists building these things," High said. "We as a society have a role and responsibility for deciding how we want these things to affect us in the world."
He compared AI to a hammer. There's a social contract that you use a hammer to build stuff, not to bludgeon people to death. Sweet, robotic Pepper isn't a murder machine, but the same principle applies.
"We have created conditions and regulatory requirements and social conditions that place expectations on how people use these things," High said.
And anyway, he added, so many of these jobs have already disappeared. Hotel concierge desks are so often understaffed, he offered. Supermarkets and pharmacies have already embraced self-service checkout machines.
In High's vision, an intelligent robot who fills an already empty slot makes life better for current employees and customers.
"Having a robot, in this case augmenting the staff, benefits the people who are there so that it helps them serve their customers better," he said.
So, sleep tight: Maybe there's nothing to fear about the robot revolution after all.
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