Does Silicon Valley have a moral responsibility to stop developing robots?

The debate about the impact of new technology, particularly AI, on society continues to rage.

Last month, for example, the current front runner to replace Jerry Brown as Californian Governor in 2018, Gavin Newsom – traditionally one of Silicon Valley’s most vocal supporters – warned graduating computer science students at UC Berkeley about the duty to “exercise their moral authority” to improve society.

“This is code red, a firehose, a tsunami, that’s coming our way,” he said about the impact of new technology on jobs and inequality. So is Newsom right? Is the job of entrepreneurs and technologists, in his words, to “exercise their moral authority”?

To answer this question, and to talk more generally about the impact of AI on employment, I sat down with the co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, Andrew McAfee.

One of the world’s leading authorities on the economic consequences of new technology, McAfee is also the co-author of the 2014 bestseller The Second Machine Age and the just published Machine, Platform, Crowd.

Three years ago, I interviewed McAfee and his co-author, the MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, about the connection between digital technology and jobs. So what’s changed since 2014, I asked McAfee about his findings in his new book. What has surprised him most about developments over the last three years?

On the one hand, McAfee admits, “We all underestimate the pace of progress” in the sense that things have changed much faster and more dramatically than he ever imagined. But on the other hand, he confesses, he admits to being surprised by the surprising number of jobs that have been created by all this new technology.

These jobs may not always be great, he admits. But they exist. Thus far, at least, then, we have been spared Gavin Newsom’s “tsunami” of technological unemployment. McAfee’s biggest regret lies in what he see as the failure over the last three years of public policy to get ready for the oncoming storm.

None of the suggestions laid out in The Second Machine Age — liberalizing immigration policy or investment in infrastructure, education and research — have been pursued. And so, McAfee warns, we may today be even more vulnerable to the darker economic consequences of the digital revolution.

Should Silicon Valley exercise its moral authority to stop developing this job-killing technology? Here McAfee is unequivocal. Absolutely not, he says. Over the next fifty years, he acknowledges, the economy will become “massively automated”, but at the same time society will have had half a century to adapt itself to the march of the robots.

McAfee ultimately remains an optimist. Things are going to work out okay in the long-run, he promises. In the end, we will be able to control the tsunami that is coming our way.

Many thanks to the folks at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce for their help in producing this interview.