Ask 'em one about ethics
Tomohiro Ohsumi—Bloomberg via Getty Images

'Passengers' gets to the heart of the big robotics question

By Alan Murray
January 9, 2017

Good morning.

I’m in Los Angeles this morning, having spent last night at the Golden Globes awards – an evening of celebrity and high fashion to counter a three-day inundation in CES’s high-tech geekery.

The link between the two was the movie Passengers, which I saw here Saturday night. It didn’t make much of a showing at the Golden Globes. Hollywood was more impressed with the navel-gazing of La La Land, which ran away with last night’s major awards.

But I thought Passengers was a perfect sequel to CES. Rapid advances in AI were the major theme of this year’s conference, and the movie was an entertaining exploration of where those advances might take us in the future.

One big question overhanging AI is what happens as its capabilities become increasingly human-like. Will machines ultimately challenge human dominance? Baidu’s Andrew Ng told Fortune he wasn’t too worried about this threat.

But Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, who participated in the panel I moderated Friday, seemed more confident about the rapidly-advancing abilities of computers to think like humans.

My favorite scene in Passengers was when Jim (Chris Pratt) is talking to the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) about whether to wake up Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) from hibernation – a profound moral question, since it would give him a companion, but doom her to a life inside the spaceship. Arthur’s response: “Jim, these are not robot questions.” That’s an android who knows his limits.

The second big question overhanging AI is whether it will eliminate jobs more rapidly than new ones are created. My three panelists Friday – Krzanich, Ford CEO Mark Fields, and Flex CEO Mike McNamara – all expressed confidence that new jobs would emerge. “I have this belief that technology drives transformation — it actually creates jobs,” Krzanich said “It rarely ever eliminates jobs.” But all stressed the need for more emphasis on training and education programs to re-skill displaced workers. “There are going to be displaced people,” Fields said, “and they are going to be vocal about it, and we as a society are going to have to deal with that, because the last thing we want is to have society turn against technological innovation. That would be disastrous.”

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