Experts share 6 positive AI visions for future work

  • Many AI experts predict that machines can surpass humans for any task within 45 years.
  • There is currently no consensus on how to shape these technologies to support a changing workforce and economy.
  • We asked over 150 experts to discuss these challenges and share their positive AI future.

Current trends in AI are nothing, if not remarkable. Day after day, we hear stories of systems and machines taking on tasks that we until very recently saw as humanity’s exclusive and permanent reservation: making medical diagnoses, drafting legal documents, designing buildings, and even composing music.

Our concern here, however, is something even more striking: the prospect of high-level machine intelligence systems that transcend humans to virtually any task. This is not science fiction. In a recent study, the median estimate among leading computer scientists reported a 50% chance that this technology would arrive within 45 years.

Importantly, the study also revealed significant disagreement. Some see high-level machine intelligence arrive much faster, others much slower, if at all. There are plenty of such differences of opinion in the recent literature on the future of AI, from popular comments to more expert analyzes.

But despite these conflicting views, one thing is clear: if we believe this kind of outcome might be possible, then it should require our attention. Continued advances in these technologies can have extraordinary disruptive effects – it would exacerbate recent trends in inequality, undermine work as a force for social inclusion and weaken a source of purpose and fulfillment for many people.

Experts gather to share their AI visions

In April 2020, an ambitious initiative called Positive AI Economic Futures was launched by Stuart Russell and Charles-Edouard BouĂ©e, both members of the World Economic Forum’s Global AI Council (GAIC). In a series of workshops and interviews, over 150 experts from a wide range of backgrounds came together virtually to discuss these challenges as well as possible positive visions of artificial intelligence and their implications for policy makers.

These included Madeline Ashby (science fiction writer and strategic foresight expert), Ken Liu (Hugo award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer) and economists Daron Acemoglu (MIT) and Anna Salomons (Utrecht), among many others. The following is a summary of these conversations, developed in the forum report Positive AI Economic Futures.

What will be “work” in a future

Participants were divided on this issue. One camp believed that people, freed from the shackles of traditional work, could use their new freedom to engage in exploration, self-improvement, volunteer work, or whatever else they find satisfying. Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online.

The second camp in our workshops and interviews thought the opposite: traditional work can still be crucial. For them, UBI is an admission of failure – it assumes that most people will have nothing of economic value to contribute to society. They can be fed, housed and entertained – mostly by machines – but otherwise left to their own devices.

People will be committed to providing interpersonal services that can be delivered – or like us prefer to be delivered – by humans only. These include therapy, guidance, life coaching and community building. That is, if we can no longer deliver routine physical work and routine mental work, we can still deliver our humanity. For that kind of job to create real value, we need to be much better at being human – an area where our education system and scientific research base are notoriously weak.

So whether we think the end of traditional work would be a good thing or a bad thing, it seems that we need a radical redirection of education and science to equip individuals to live satisfying lives or to support an economy that is largely based on high-value interpersonal services. We must also ensure that the economic gains generated by AI-enabled automation are equitably distributed in society.

Six AI scenarios that can build a positive future

One of the biggest obstacles to action is that at present there is no consensus on what future we should aim for, perhaps because there is almost no conversation about what might be desirable. This lack of vision is a problem because if high-level machine intelligence emerges, we can quickly become overwhelmed by unprecedented technological change and irreconcilable economic forces. This would be a huge opportunity wasted.

For this reason, the workshop participants and interview participants, from science fiction writers to economists and AI experts, tried to formulate positive visions of a future where artificial intelligence can do most of what we currently call work.

These scenarios represent possible trajectories for humanity. However, none of them are uniquely achievable or desirable. And while there are elements of important agreement and consensus among the visions, there are also often revealing clashes.

Shared economic prosperity

The economic benefits of technological advancement are widely shared worldwide. The global economy is 10 times larger because artificial intelligence has increased productivity enormously. People can do more and achieve more by sharing this prosperity. This vision could be pursued by adopting various interventions, ranging from introducing a global tax system to improving unemployment insurance.

2. Adjusted companies

Large corporations focus on developing artificial intelligence that benefits humanity, and they do so without having excessive economic or political power. This could be pursued by changing the company’s ownership structures and updating antitrust policies.

Flexible labor markets

Human creativity and practical support give people time to find new roles. People are adapting to technological change and finding work in newly created professions. Policies would focus on improving education and retraining opportunities as well as strengthening social safety nets for those who would otherwise be disadvantaged due to automation.

The World Economic Forums Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in collaboration with the UK Government, has developed guidelines for more ethical and efficient public procurement of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Governments across Europe, Latin America and the Middle East are testing these guidelines to improve their AI procurement processes.

Our guidelines not only serve as a practical reference tool for governments seeking to introduce AI technology, but also set basic standards for efficient, responsible public procurement and the roll-out of AI – standards that can ultimately be adopted by industries.

Example of a challenge-based procurement process mentioned in the guide

Example of a challenge-based procurement process mentioned in the guide

We invite organizations interested in the future of artificial intelligence and machine learning to become involved in this initiative. Read more about our influence.

4. Human-centered AI

Society decides against excessive automation. Business leaders, computer scientists and policy makers are choosing to develop technologies that increase rather than decrease the demand for workers. Incentives to develop human-centered artificial intelligence will be strengthened and automation taxed where necessary.

5. Filling out jobs

New jobs are more satisfying than those that came before. Machines handle insecure and tedious tasks while humans move into more productive, satisfying and flexible jobs with greater human interaction. Policies to achieve this include strengthening unions and increasing employee involvement in corporate boards.

6. Civic empowerment and human prosperity

In a world with less need for work and basic needs met by UBI, well-being increasingly comes from meaningful unpaid activities. People can engage in exploration, self-improvement, volunteer work or whatever else they find satisfying. Greater social engagement would be supported.

The intention is for this report to start a broader discussion on what kind of future we want and the challenges that must be faced in order to achieve it. If technological progress continues its relentless progress, the world will look very different to our children and grandchildren. There is a need for far more debate, research and political engagement on these issues – they are now too important for us to ignore.


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