Jim Freeze Hi, and welcome to The ConversAItion, a brand new podcast airing viewpoints on the impact of artificial intelligence on business and society.
Jim Freeze Today, Artificial Intelligence, commonly known as AI, is a technology that transcends industries. It can do things like pull spam out of your inbox. It can analyze complex medical data. And if you ask, it’ll tell you the weather or even play your favorite song. Through dialogue and debate with AI executives and academics, our show is going to peel back the layers on the ways in which AI is changing our lives to understand how its impact can be as beneficial as possible. The ConversAItion is presented by Interactions, a conversational AI company that builds Intelligent Virtual Assistants capable of human-level communication and understanding. I’m your host, Jim Freeze, Chief Marketing Officer at Interactions, and I’m a long time tech enthusiast. Today, I’m thrilled to kickoff the first episode of our podcast with an internationally recognized expert in AI, Rob Atkinson. Rob, welcome to the show.
Rob Atkinson Hey, Jim. Thank you for having me.
Jim Freeze We felt it was fitting to speak to Rob in our show’s first episode because he can offer a broad introduction to the tech and innovation landscape today, and specifically where AI fits in. He’s the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. It’s a DC-based tech policy think tank. Rob’s also an internationally recognized scholar and expert on innovation, so much so that in 2011, the Obama Administration appointed him to an advisory board focused on national innovation strategy.
Rob, to start us off, I thought I’d just ask a little bit about your background. I know you have a master’s degree from the University of Oregon in urban planning and so I’m interested in what inspired the pivot from urban planning to studying and researching innovation.
Rob Atkinson Sure. Well when I got my master’s degree there, it was at a time when the economy was in utter freefall. It was a lumber and wood product state and there were literally towns that they were burning down because there was no economic viability. So I decided to switch from urban planning, planning cities, to figuring out where does wealth and prosperity and sustainability come from? So that’s when I got my PhD in Chapel Hill and really focused on innovation, studying the economics of innovation, how organizations deal with innovation, and how governments promote innovation. And that’s what I’ve been doing my entire career.
Jim Freeze So when you first made that pivot, did you anticipate the widespread impact of tech innovation on society and the economy in general?
Rob Atkinson Yeah, I mean, one of the things that was clear pretty early on is that, at least in the fields that I was studying, we go through these innovation waves every really generation or half century or so. This is pioneered by the famous economist Joseph Schumpeter. He argued that we go through these big transformative waves of innovation and so, in the early phases of those, the technology comes about, people are trying to make it a little better, trying to figure out how to use it and companies are vying for position. And then eventually we get to the point where it becomes standard fare. Most companies are using it. You have a few major companies who thrive. Like, for example, in the 90s, we didn’t really know who was going to be the dominant player in office software, for example. Was it going to be WordPerfect or Microsoft or some other company? And one player emerged. So I think we’re in a similar position today, only we’re in the early beginning phases of it. And eventually, maybe ten years from now, we’ll be in a world where we’re not really talking about the AI Revolution, because it will just be all around us and we’ll be talking about how to make it a little better, how to use it better, how to extend its uses.
Jim Freeze Yeah so based on that commentary and characterization, it feels like you believe we’re at the beginning of one of those waves and that wave specifically is the application or applied AI.
Rob Atkinson Yeah, we actually, I actually wrote a report last December called “Transforming the World With Connectivity, Automation and Intelligence.” It’s really three things together: it’s the ability to have a lot of things that generate data—obviously AI is pretty worthless without data. And that data could be in the form of voice, as your company does, or in the form of sensors on cars and parking meters and all sorts of things. Secondly, it’s about using that to do things, so autonomous systems and the like. And the third is really using it to make sense of it if you will. And that’s really the power of AI and the various flavors and versions of AI. It’s taking data and allowing us to take action based upon its meaning.
Jim Freeze So today there’s a common notion that AI is going to put us all out of a job, but I read an article in the Wall Street Journal where you remarked that worries around AI and job loss are overblown. You said: “It’s time to take a deep breath and stop panicking about artificial intelligence and what it portends for jobs. No, AI won’t destroy more jobs than it creates. No, the pace of technological change is not accelerating. And no, we certainly don’t need to tax AI to slow it down.” At Interactions, we certainly subscribe to your point of view, but there’s no doubt that there is this apprehension out there. So where do you think that apprehension came from? What’s causing it?
Rob Atkinson Well, I think there are two things. One is, if you go back in history, every single time we’ve been at a similar stage in this innovation cycle, there’s been a panic, there’s been a fear. I’ll read you a quote here: “A new era of production has begun in which there may soon be no more need for the vast pool of workers.” That was written by a labor secretary, a US labor secretary, in 1927.*
[*Correction: In 1927, the US Labor Secretary said: “we must ask ourselves, is automatic machinery … going to leave on our hands a state of chronic and increasing unemployment?” The exact words Rob quotes are from a letter written from a business group, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution, to President Johnson in 1964.]
Jim Freeze [LAUGHS] ‘27!
Rob Atkinson 1927. It’s very similar to what you hear today. Another quote from a Fortune 100 CEO: “It’s entirely possible we’ll have a permanent segment of our society unemployed from technology,” 1963. So that’s really the first step, every time these new technologies come about, they transform work and they replace a lot of work in certain areas.
So we went from 60% agricultural workers down to 20% over 35 years, that was a big transformation. People panicked and said, “oh, we’re not going to have any jobs.” We always had jobs. The reason we always had jobs is because people spend their money. When food costs less or when cars cost less. People don’t throw that in the ground. They actually go out and because the car is cheaper and the food is cheaper, they go spend it on other things. Who would have thought that we would have a luxury coffee industry in the US called Starbucks? You know, that’s just because people have more money and they think that coffee—nice coffee—is worth spending money on. And so you know we’ll see the same thing going forward.
However, I do worry that today one of the things that always tempered that in the past, particularly in the United States, was we always had this desire to get ahead in the US—to become a great country and maintain that greatness. And we were always of the view that America was about progress and if you didn’t think that you were some weirdo with a tinfoil hat. Today, we are more accepting of that view. I read an article in the Washington Post about Amazon using robots in their warehouse and the entire article was essentially saying, “Amazon might lay off a worker. This is awful.” And if we’re in a world where you’re never allowed to lay off any worker no matter how well you treat them, you know we’re in a world where we are basically saying that we can’t have a lot of technological change.
Jim Freeze Listening to you describe this, it sounds like the history of technology for the last five hundred years. I mean disruptive technology disrupts, and yes, it does impact some jobs, but it always creates so much more because of the productivity you gain from it.
Rob Atkinson Yeah, exactly. I mean if you think about the kind of things that a lot of people do today, I mean the major job in the US economy today is an office job. Most Americans work in an office. And that was not true fifty years ago. So why do most Americans work in offices? Because we’ve made manufacturing and agriculture and mining—and these other kinds of extractive industries—we’ve made them so productive that we can have all the output we have in that, which is much bigger than it was fifty years ago, and we still have other things we want to spend our money on. People want to spend money on insurance policies, they want to spend money on higher education—a whole wide array of things that fifty years ago people didn’t spend money because they don’t have money. We’re never going to run out of things to spend money on. It’s just never going to happen. And as long as that’s the case, there will always be new jobs created because people will want new things and better things.
Jim Freeze So you’ve given one example. I was just going to ask you—given the fact that AI is disruptive technology, where are the opportunities in that? And where are the risks?
Rob Atkinson Sure, I think one of the points that’s important there is that AI is going to have a bigger impact on job replacement on jobs that tend to be lower skill and lower wage. AI is really good, but it’s not magic. AI cannot do my job. You know, I run an organization. It can’t do that.
Jim Freeze I hope it can’t do my job either.
Rob Atkinson It can’t do your job either. Exactly. Although it probably at some point maybe could be an interviewer—
Jim Freeze [LAUGHS]
Rob Atkinson But the point is, AI can do important things but they tend to be somewhat more routinized. They take all sorts of data and find patterns. What I think we’ll see is, when AI is applied to higher skill jobs and more complex jobs, it’s going to be what economists call a complement. So a doctor will use AI to improve his or her ability to diagnose and treat patients. A patent attorney will use AI to find patterns in patents, to be able to make a better case in their prosecution.
Where I think it will tend to be more replacement is on lower scale jobs that are more routinized. And, at one level you can say that’s a problem, that’s bad. But on the other hand, one of the biggest challenges in our economy today is that there are a lot of low-wage jobs. Part of it is because companies, sure, could pay a little bit more, but they can’t pay a lot more because the jobs, essentially, there’s not enough technology in them to make them high value-added jobs. So, you know, automating some jobs I think would be frankly good for most workers—with the caveat being: Can we do a better job of helping workers move into more middle class jobs where they can make a better living, but maybe have more skill requirements? That’s the key question I think, not are we going to run out of jobs.
Jim Freeze So, how do you believe government leaders should, if they should at all, address apprehension around AI in the workplace?
Rob Atkinson So if the government, if the government doesn’t act smartly and effectively over the next two or three or four years, I really worry that we are going to have an AI backlash in the country. We’re going to have so much opposition. Just because people are gonna feel like you know, “I might lose my job and I‘ve got a kid in school and a mortgage and I can’t afford that, so I’m going to support a politician who says things like, “let’s tax AI.” And there are people now who are saying that. Let’s regulate AI so it’s only used at really bad, dangerous jobs, but not at, sort of, normal jobs. That would be a huge mistake for the country, I believe. So how do we avoid that? Governments need to do a much better job of helping workers make these adjustments.
Part of it is to have policies that encourage companies to do more training. US corporations have spent less on training now than they did thirty years ago. So there’s lots of different policy ideas, one idea that we’ve been pushing is the idea of what we call a knowledge tax credit, where right now, a company who does R&D can get a tax credit. Why not give them a tax credit for their expenditures on training their frontline workers? That would give them more incentive to really focus on that. And if those workers have more skills, then even if they’re laid off they would be in a much better position to move to a new and better lilypad.
Jim Freeze So policy specifically around encouraging companies to do the right behavior relative to the potential disruption that could result from a technology like AI?
Rob Atkinson Absolutely. Our education and training system in the country is nowhere near as good as it should be. You know we have this view that if you get a college degree, that you’ve learned what you need to learn, and yet studies show that only about 38% of college seniors in their last semester of college are fully numerate—sorry, 32% are numerate and 38% are literate. That’s a pretty shocking statistic. It’s really shocking. You know, our colleges need to do a much better job of imparting skills.
And it’s not—you know, more and more workers are going to need what my colleague David Moschella calls “double deep” skills. So it’s not enough to come out of college with an accounting degree. If you also don’t know statistics and algorithms and AI, you’re not going to be as good an accountant. Same thing with somebody who is an artist or a graphic designer—you know even an anthropologist now, or an art historian needs to know certainly some things about AI. So that’s one thing we could do, but don’t do a very good job of in the country right now.
Jim Freeze This whole topic around, you know, how we deal with the disruption that results in government intervention. I was listening to CNBC, there was a big debate about big tech, the Facebooks of the world and the Googles, and to what extent should they be regulated and should we break them up. I was thinking about that as you were talking about some of the policy around AI, and I’m wondering if there are ways or things that we can just do as parents or as leaders in our communities to get people more comfortable with AI so they don’t view it as much of a threat as it is perceived certainly by some people and certainly some leaders in government.
Rob Atkinson Right now, AI it’s like magic, it’s this weird elixir. You don’t know what it is, and yet it’s not all that complicated. But most people they have so little knowledge of it that it becomes a source of fear rather than, “oh yeah, I understand what AI is. It’s just like a technology, like any other technology. It has these advantages—it can do really important things here but it really isn’t applicable here.” And it’s hard for people to know that when they have so little background in and basis in statistics and even computer science. If you look at the American high school curriculum in this country, about 88% of American high school kids will take and pass geometry, but about 8% of them will take and pass statistics. That is 100% backwards. If I have to prioritize one of those things, I’m gonna prioritize statistics for the economy we’re in today.
Jim Freeze It sounds like you think this is a particularly important time for us to be talking about and educating people about AI and it’s not too early to think about doing that, even in school for kids.
Rob Atkinson Absolutely. A good, but troubling statistic, is that there are more high school kids in California that take pottery, than take computer science.
Jim Freeze Wow.
Rob Atkinson Now thats pretty shocking because number one, we’re talking about California, which is the tech hub of the world. Secondly, I’m not knocking the arts, but I think that computer science is so important that everybody should have at least one year of computer science just so they know what it is and then they are going to be a little bit more capable of having a reasonable understanding of how these technologies are reshaping our society. But ideally also even with one year of computer science, you’re going to have more capabilities to deal more effectively with different kinds of jobs that you might have in your career. But we don’t do that. And again that’s where I really come back to this political will issue—it’s really about political will—do we want to make our society resilient for this next wave or do we just kind of leave it up to happenstance, and if you make it you make it and if you don’t, you don’t? I hope we do the former.
Jim Freeze Are you aware of any schools that you think today—I’m talking about high schools or even middle schools—that are doing a really particularly good job in educating kids with a curriculum that’s more germaine to the world we live in?
Rob Atkinson One of the great things about the US system compared to say Europe where it’s much more regiment, is we do have more experimentation in the US. So we have over, at this point, probably 110-120 specialty math and science high schools in the country. So if you’re in New York, you’ve got Bronx Academy. If you’re in Arkansas, you’ve got The Arkansas Science and Technology High School. Places like that are doing a fantastic job at teaching kids computer science and STEM skills. You’ve got a whole set of schools now that are designed around project-based learning, which I think is just fantastic.
I mean, if you look at the studies of high school kids, 70% of high school kids are bored every day in high school. That’s pretty tragic. And I get that it’s work and all that and high school kids have their other interests sometimes, but we should really give kids a lot more opportunities rather than just “hey, it’s nine-o-clock, you have to go to your history class.” Again, we’re teaching kids pretty much the way we taught them a hundred years ago.
Jim Freeze Well, it’s good to hear that there are schools out there that are doing it right. And I think it’s fantastic that there are people like you who are out there advocating changes, and having a dialogue around AI and the impact. I think that AI is one of those technological changes that is going to have a pretty material impact. The dialogue you brought today was just fantastic and I really appreciate your time.
Rob Atkinson Thank you. It’s really an honor to be on the first podcast and I’ll look forward to listening to the other ones.
Jim Freeze Terrific, thank you, once again, Rob.
Rob Atkinson Okay, my pleasure. Take care.
Jim Freeze Bye.
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On the next episode of The ConversAItion, we’ll talk social robots, AI powered robots that look and communicate like humans. We’ll speak to Professor Gabriel Scantza. He’s a co-founder and chief scientist at Furhat robotics, a social robot company. This episode of The ConversAItion was recorded at the PRX Podcast Garage in Allston, Massachusetts, and produced by Interactions, a Massachusetts-based conversational AI company. Well, that’s a wrap for The ConversAItion, episode 1. I’m Jim Freeze, signing off. We’ll see you next time.