Silicon Valley’s 'Magic Wand' Mentality

May 23, 2019

In observing Silicon Valley’s surge in interest around universal basic income (UBI), I believe some of that advocacy has emerged from a place of true and genuine concern for those who will be displaced by new technologies.

But I worry that there’s also a more self-interested component: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs know that their billions in riches and their role in instigating these disruptions make them an obvious target of mob anger if things ever spin out of control. With that fear fresh in their minds, I wonder if this group has begun casting about for a quick fix to problems ahead.

The Three R’s: Reduce, Retrain, and Redistribute

May 21, 2019

Many of the proposed technical solutions for AI-induced job losses coming out of Silicon Valley fall into three buckets: retraining workers, reducing work hours, or redistributing income. Each of these approaches aims to augment a different variable within the labor markets (skills, time, compensation) and also embodies different assumption about the speed and severity of job losses.

Those advocating the retraining of workers tend to believe that AI will slowly shift what skills are in demand, but if workers can adapt their abilities and training, then there will be no decrease in the need for labor. Those advocates of reducing work hours believe that AI will reduce the demand for human labor and feel that this impact could be absorbed by moving to a three- or four-day workweek, spreading the jobs that do remain over more workers. The redistribution camp tends to be the most dire in their predictions of AI-induced job losses. Many of them predict that as AI advances, it will so thoroughly displace or dislodge workers that no amount of training or tweaking hours will be sufficient. Instead, we will have to adopt more radical redistribution schemes to support unemployed workers and spread the wealth created by AI.

Adopting and Leveraging AI Tools

May 16, 2019

As I mentioned in my previous post, the private sector will be where AI can become humanized. One profession in particular, medicine, may lead the way. Similar synergies will emerge in many other fields: teaching, law, event planning, and high- end retail. Paralegals at law firms could hand their routine research tasks off to algorithms and instead focus on communicating more with clients and making them feel cared for. AI-powered supermarkets like the Amazon Go store may not need cashiers anymore, so they could greatly upgrade the customer experience by hiring friendly concierges like the one I described in an earlier blog.

For those in professional sectors, it will be imperative that they adopt and learn to leverage AI tools as they arrive. As with any technological revolution, many workers will find the new tools both imperfect in their uses and potentially threatening in their implications. But these tools will only improve with time, and those who seek to compete against AI on its own terms will lose out. In the long run, resistance may be futile, but symbiosis will be rewarded.

A Blueprint for Human Coexistence with AI

May 14, 2019

While I was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer in Taiwan, an old friend of mine who is a serial entrepreneur came to me with a problem at his latest startup. He had already founded and sold off several successful consumer technology companies, but as he grew older he wanted to do something more meaningful, that is, he wanted to build a product that would serve the people that technology startups had often ignored. Both my friend and I were entering the age at which our parents needed more help going about their daily lives, and he decided to design a product that would make life easier for the elderly.

What he came up with was a large touchscreen mounted on a stand that could be placed next to an elderly person’s bed. On the screen were a few simple and practical apps connected to services that elderly people could use: ordering food delivery, playing their favorite soap operas on the TV, calling their doctor, and more. Older people often struggle to navigate the complexities of the internet or to manipulate the small buttons of a smartphone, so my friend made everything as simple as possible. All the apps required just a couple of clicks, and he even included a button that let the elderly users directly call up a customer-service agent to guide them through using their device.