Panel from left: Dennis Mortensen, James Hughes, Matthew Zeiler, Pascal Kaufman & Josh Guttman

Panel from left: Dennis Mortensen, James Hughes, Matthew Zeiler, Pascal Kaufman & Josh Guttman

It’s 2015 and Marty McFly’s hoverboard is nowhere in sight. With each passing year, as more Hollywood predictions fall short of the mark, it seems increasingly unlikely that Skynet doth approacheth. Undeterred, though, we continue to occupy our imaginations with predictions of the advent of Artificial Intelligence. Torn by the possibilities of AI, yet terrified by its actual arrival (I’m still regularly haunted by Bina the robot), I attended Friday’s Northside Innovation Expo panel discussion, “Artificial Intelligence and its Discontents” to seek some answers.

The panel was hosted by NYC tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Josh Guttman and was comprised of Dennis Mortensen, James Hughes, Matthew Zeiler and Pascal Kaufman, entrepreneurs all involved in the fields of AI development and research. Their discussion ranged from the implications of AI for human capital to more existential questions surrounding society’s future. Just so you can’t say you weren’t prepared, below we’ve compiled some of their take-away messages.

AI is a “tool” that will replace human labor.

Matthew Zeiler, founder of Clarifai, a machine learning and computer vision company aimed at bringing “large scale deep learning into every day use,” explained that another way to think of AI is as ”Augmented Intelligence.” It’s “a tool which allows us to do much more than we can do or have evolved to do over time,” said Zeiler.

James Hughes, a bioethicist and author of Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future and executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, agreed with Zeiler, noting AI must be seen as an extension of human intelligence. “In the distant possibilities for AI, machine intelligence will begin to do things that we humans can’t do.”

“AI is a tool and in the way a human can be intelligent, so too can a tool. Ultimately I think we will be replaced by machines,” added Pascal Kaufman, director of the nefarious-sounding Starmind, a software company aimed at developing AI productivity tools.

Our brain is not the same as a computer.

“It has always struck me how this ‘brain machine’ is still such a mystery to us,” noted Kaufman, a neuroscience graduate from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. “Once people thought that brains were like wheels and pumps, and today people think brains are like computers. We always tend to make the same mistakes and I don’t think that with huge computing power, we’ll solve this brain mystery. However, if this new technology is able to connect people in a smart way, where we can connect thousands of scientists and great minds around the world, someone will come up with an original idea about how the brain really works and that will lead to a breakthrough innovation. But I don’t think the brain is like a giant computer, I think that’s misleading.”

They took our jobs” – good news for window washers, bad for bankers and universities.

Hughes, a lecturer at Trinity College, Connecticut, predicted a future in which the traditional four-year college model might be made redundant.

“AI plus knowledge-sourcing platforms such as the Khan Academy might make it possible to have a model for higher education which is faster and cheaper and requires a lot fewer professors. The barrier to this of course is that all those people that have gone through the four-year model have a vested interest in making sure we don’t give credence to an alternative model…”

“We all have this impression it will be the simple jobs that will be taken by computers and robots,” noted Kaufman. “I think it will be knowledge workers that will ultimately fade away because if you just do consulting and process information from A to B, a machine can do that much better… Knowledge workers are that much more at risk than people cleaning households or washing dishes because getting robots to do that is extremely hard, but being consultants or bankers is extremely easy for a computer and I think those will be the first to fade away.”

The age of the AI Technological revolution will create new jobs and eliminate old ones.

Faced with the potentially drastic economic shift that will come once we reach the age of AI, Dennis Mortensen, CEO and founder of x.ai, a company specializing in AI-driven personal assistants, believes when that time arrives, humans won’t look back.

“I’m not so sure I agree with the current Hollywood narrative where we blink and suddenly we’ll all be doomed come early next week. I don’t think that’s going to play out. I do think though that there’ll be a future event where we’ll be alive to do what we’d hoped for when technology arrived and to work a whole lot less and focus on the things we care about.”

Zeiler opted for a more grounded prediction. “I don’t think it’ll be any different to revolutions that have come before. I think it’ll create jobs, just different types of jobs. Currently we’re [Clarifai] employing 25 people who are experts at training systems how to understand data… We’re creating an economy where data is the valuable thing and people need to generate this data to make jobs for AI even possible.”

“But if you look at the amount of employees the big auto manufacturers used to have compared to the amount of jobs that the big tech companies in Silicon Valley have, there’s a big difference,” countered Hughes. “The more we increase productivity, the fewer humans we’ll need.”

To regulate, or not to regulate? Is it even (a possible) question?

Hughes, whose work with the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies examines the likely social implications for scientific and technological advancement, believes a regulatory environment will be essential.

“Those of us that hold this position have come to be known as techno-progressives; what distinguishes our stance is that we do want technology, but we also want it to be well regulated so that the benefits will be equitable and accessible.”

Kaufman continued his streak of countering Hughes, opting for his rather more dramatic rendering of our future. “Ultimately I don’t think you can control artificial intelligence, it is an illusory thing and I think it’s the next step in evolution and AI will just take over. It’s hard to imagine such a world but I really think we have no chance to actually control artificial intelligence… it’ll be the last invention of humans.”