The field of artificial intelligence may not be able to create a robotic vacuum cleaner that never knocks over a vase, at least not within a couple of years, but intelligent machines will increasingly replace knowledge workers in the near future, a group of AI experts predicted.
An AI machine that can learn the same way humans do, and has the equivalent processing power of a human brain, is still a few years off, the experts said. But AI programs that can reliably assist with medical diagnosis and offer sound investing advice are on the near horizon, said Andrew McAfee, co-founder of the Initiative on the Digital Economy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
For decades, Luddites have mistakenly predicted that automation will create large unemployment problems, but those predictions may finally come true as AI matures in the next few years, McAfee said Monday during a discussion on the future of AI at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
Innovative companies will increasingly combine human knowledge with AI knowledge to refine results, McAfee said. "What smart companies are doing is buttressing a few brains with a ton of processing power and data," he said. "The economic consequences of that are going to be profound and are going to come sooner than a lot of us think."
Many knowledge workers today get paid to do things that computers will soon be able to do, McAfee predicted. "I don't think a lot of employers are going to be willing to pay a lot of people for what they're currently doing," he said.
Software has already replaced human payroll processors, and AI will increasingly move up the skill ladder to replace U.S. middle-class workers, he said. He used the field of financial advising as an example.
It's a "bad joke" that humans almost exclusively produce financial advice today, he said. "There's no way a human can keep on top of all possible financial instruments, analyze their performance in any rigorous way, and assemble them in a portfolio that makes sense for where you are in your life."
But AI still has many limitations, with AI scientists still not able to "solve the problem of common sense, of endowing a computer with the knowledge that every 5-year-old has," said Paul Cohen, program manager in the Information Innovation Office at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and founding director of the University of Arizona School of Information's science, technology and arts program.
There is, however, a class of problems where AI will do "magnificent things," by pulling information out of huge data sets to make increasingly specific distinctions, he added. IBM's recent decision to focus its Watson AI computer on medical diagnostics is a potential "game changer," he said.
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.