Addressing the promises and challenges of AI
A three-day celebration event this week for the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing put focus on the Institute’s new role in helping society navigate a promising yet challenging future for artificial intelligence (AI), as it seeps into nearly all aspects of society.
On Thursday, the final day of the event, a series of talks and panel discussions by researchers and industry experts conveyed enthusiasm for AI-enabled advances in many global sectors, but emphasized concerns — on topics such as data privacy, job automation, and personal and social issues — that accompany the computing revolution.
Kicking off the day’s events, MIT President Rafael Reif said the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will train students in an interdisciplinary approach to AI. It will also train them to take a step back and weigh potential downsides of AI, which is poised to disrupt “every sector of our society.”
“Everyone knows pushing the limits of new technologies can be so thrilling that it’s hard to think about consequences and how [AI] too might be misused,” Reif said. “It is time to educate a new generation of technologists in the public interest, and I’m optimistic that the MIT Schwarzman College [of Computing] is the right place for that job.”
In opening remarks, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker gave MIT “enormous credit” for focusing its research and education on the positive and negative impact of AI. “Having a place like MIT … think about the whole picture in respect to what this is going to mean for individuals, businesses, governments, and society is a gift,” he said.
Personal and industrial AI
In a panel discussion titled, “Computing the Future: Setting New Directions,” MIT alumnus Drew Houston ’05, co-founder of Dropbox, described an idyllic future where by 2030 AI could take over many tedious professional tasks, freeing humans to be more creative and productive.
Workers today, Houston said, spend more than 60 percent of their working lives organizing emails, coordinating schedules, and planning various aspects of their job. As computers start refining skills — such as analyzing and answering queries in natural language, and understanding very complex systems — each of us may soon have AI-based assistants that can handle many of those mundane tasks, he said.
“We’re on the eve of a new generation of our partnership with machines … where machines will take a lot of the busy work so people can … spend our working days on the subset of our work that’s really fulfilling and meaningful,” Houston said. “My hope is that, in 2030, we’ll look back on now as the beginning of a revolution that freed our minds the way the industrial revolution freed our hands. My last hope is that … the new [MIT Schwarzman College of Computing] is the place where that revolution is born.”
Speaking with reporters before the panel discussion “Computing for the Marketplace: Entrepreneurship and AI,” Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Alphabet and a visiting innovation fellow at MIT, also spoke of a coming age of AI assistants. Smart teddy bears could help children learn language, virtual assistants could plan people’s days, and personal robots could ensure the elderly take medication on schedule. “This model of an assistant … is at the basis of the vision of how people will see a difference in our lives every day,” Schmidt said.
He noted many emerging AI-based research and business opportunities, including analyzing patient data to predict risk of diseases, discovering new compounds for drug discovery, and predicting regions where wind farms produce the most power, which is critical for obtaining clean-energy funding. “MIT is at the forefront of every single example that I just gave,” Schmidt said.
When asked by panel moderator Katie Rae, executive director of The Engine, what she thinks is the most significant aspect of AI in industry, iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner cited supply chain automation. Robots could, for instance, package goods more quickly and efficiently, and driverless delivery trucks could soon deliver those packages, she said: “Logistics in general will be changed” in the coming years.