Artificial intelligence has the power to be constructive or dire and nine companies control AI’s future. Who are they and what’s at stake? Best-selling futurist Amy Webb shared four key insights about them when she spoke at Ipsos in Chicago last week about her new book, “The Big Nine.”
The nine companies include what Webb calls the G-MAFIA in the U.S.: Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, IBM and Amazon; and the BAT in China: Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. They own most of the technology and patents and can attract the best talent and partnerships with universities that teach machine learning. Webb laid out the optimistic, neutral and catastrophic scenarios that AI could create, how we can influence a positive future and the frightening consequences if we don’t. Here are four big takeaways:
There’s hope for the future: Webb shared how indoor lettuce farms in Japan are using AI and producing 100 times more yield with 98 percent less food waste using 90 percent less water than traditional methods. In the future, AI could yield medications with no side effects as computational pharmacists custom-design prescriptions, Webb said.
But such future outcomes depend on whether the Big Nine are willing to “make their systems transparent and inter-operable, make ethics and human-centered decision-making a focal point, and if the data become portable,” she said. Already, there are challenges.
The U.S. is letting the private sector lead: Webb said that the U.S. government ceded its involvement in fundamental research and development across AI. And the six U.S. companies are beholden to Wall Street and have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders. Meanwhile, competitive cycles pit the companies against each other rather than encourage them to collaborate, while the opposite is true in China, she says.
China is investing heavily: China’s three companies are publicly traded but are under Beijing rule. While the U.S. is pulling federal funding, China has a long tradition of spending heavily in R&D when it’s in the national interest, Webb said. To wit: in the next year or so, schools in China will teach machine learning principles and foundations to kindergarteners.
Where it gets ominous is that Webb foresees China using AI to deploy its brand of communism New World Order. “China doesn’t have to fire missiles at us to engage in war,” she said. “We’re already in the midst of an economic war that nobody is recognizing as such.”
For example, she said China’s Belt and Road Initiative aims to repair and build roads and bridges. But it also includes 5G and fiber, and “a gigantic data collection system meant to help engineer social control,” she said. “It’s called the Social Credit policy. We could very easily be locked out of all of the countries that China has deployed its social credit scoring system to because we don’t have sufficient credit scores.” Because AI “doesn’t know geographic boundaries, that’s not good for everyday people,” she continued.
If we want an optimistic future, we must act now: There is a hopeful way forward, Webb said. One idea could include economic incentives for U.S. companies to work together to audit the data and data training sets they use to identify problems, then clean up, redeploy and retrain those algorithms. “We have to be willing to make difficult decisions and sacrifices,” said Webb said. “We’ve got to get our heads out of the sand.”