At Davos, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty Downplays Fears of a Robot Takeover

January 18, 2017, 4:04 PM UTC
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It’s been quite a few years since IBM CEO Ginni Rometty attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But she broke her hiatus to deliver a clear message to the business executives and political leaders gathered in the Alps: artificial intelligence won’t prompt a robot takeover.

In two on-stage interviews in two days, Rometty touted the vast capability of IBM’s Watson AI platform while also seeking to ease fears that the technology will displace human workers entirely.

On Wednesday, she explained Watson’s foray into oncology. The platform was fed textbooks, medical journals, and possible treatments and then trained on cancer causes. As a result, Watson is now able, in some instances, to spot cancer better than a panel of human experts—an outcome that points to AI’s potential to “find solutions to the world’s most unsolvable problems,” Rometty said.

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To that, moderator Fareed Zakaria of CNN asked, “If a computer can do all that, what will humans do?”

Rometty quickly softened her lofty decree with assurances that artificial intelligence will simply augment human work, not replace it, and that humans have played a vital role in AI’s advancement. She even went as far as to say she dislikes the term “artificial intelligence,” becomes it “carries some baggage with it.”

Indeed, the WEF’s own risk report cited unemployment and underemployment—mainly due to increased automation—as one of the five global risks to business. There have been plenty of headlines warning that robots will eventually steal the jobs of hard-working Americans, but estimates on the number of jobs in jeopardy vary. One 2013 study from the Oxford Martin School suggested that 47% of U.S. jobs were at high risk from automation, but a 2016 working paper from the OECD gave a significantly lower estimate—9%. Another study from McKinsey in 2015 concluded that 45% of the activities that workers do today could already be automated if companies choose to do so.

Rometty said companies have a duty to deploy “cognitive” systems—her preferred word—responsibly. On Tuesday, she shared lessons IBM has learned from using Watson in business settings. Earlier in the day, she’d outlined the company’s “principles for the cognitive era”—purpose, transparency, and skills—to IBM employees.

For Rometty’s assurances to be universally true, other companies have to buy into her outlook. A survey from Infosys shows that at least some are on the same page. “History has taught us many things,” said the CEO. “When you [have] powerful technologies, you have a responsibility that they’re introduced in right way.”



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