An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Putting AI to Work, Ethically

  • Kathryn M. O'Neill
  • Slice of MIT

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Like most powerful technologies humans have created, generative artificial intelligence (AI) can be used for good or evil. Which uses prevail will be a design choice, Professor David Autor told attendees at the MIT Alumni Forum “Building the Future of AI with Human Intelligence and Ethics,” which took place on February 21.

A labor economist and MacVicar Faculty Fellow, Autor focused his remarks on the implications of AI for the workforce. He was joined by philosophy professor Caspar Hare, associate dean for the social and ethical responsibilities of computing at the Schwarzman College of Computing, who spoke about MIT’s efforts to ensure students think about developing technology in ways that benefit humanity.

“Technologies transform societies in radical, fundamental ways,” Hare said. “The thought that’s driving us at MIT now is that rather than blunder into the future, we’d like to chart a course into the future.”

Autor was generally optimistic that while AI might replace certain types of jobs, new ones will emerge to take their place. “We automate ourselves out of jobs all the time,” he said, explaining that new tools pave the way to new jobs. “An air traffic controller without a radar is not a job. It doesn’t exist,” he added. “My colleagues and I estimate that 60 percent of work people do in 2020 didn’t exist in 1940.”

That said, new technologies can be extremely disruptive. The Industrial Revolution, which saw mass production technologies displace the expertise of artisans, suppressed wages in industrial England for 50 years. Yet, new expertise did eventually emerge—skilled machinists, for example—fueling the growth of the middle class. “I am going long on the bet that human creativity will continue to invent new applications for our tools,” Autor said.

Both speakers suggested it will take thoughtful planning to avoid the pitfalls of the rapid adoption of AI technologies across industries. “It’s going to take a new sensibility of: How do you work with a machine that may or may not be trustworthy, may or may not be reliable, and how do you keep your own judgment up to par?” Autor said.

That’s why the mission of the Schwarzman College is to “create a world in which social, ethical, and policy considerations are actively woven into the teaching, research, and implementation of computing,” Hare said.

To learn more, watch the video.

The MIT Alumni Forum is a thought-provoking online series that brings alumni back to their years learning under the Great Dome. Each forum connects audiences with leading MIT experts while providing opportunities to engage with speakers and ask questions.

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