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AI Is a Matter of Survival

July 17, 2018, 10:49 PM UTC

Anxieties about artificial intelligence range from the threat of sudden joblessness to robot insurrection. But if companies and governments shy away from investing in and developing AI technologies, then they could face a worse fate: obsolesce, or even annihilation.

At Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. on Tuesday, a panel of executives and leaders from GM, Intel, Slack, and the U.S. Navy discussed a coming wave of AI automation—and why neglecting this tech revolution could spell doom for laggards.

Naveen Rao, who leads AI products at Intel, compared the situation to a dog-eat-dog, Darwinian model of the natural world. “AI recapitulates what happens in evolutionary systems,” he said.

Animals use their senses, brains, and bodies to acquire food and other necessities, Rao said. Similarly, companies collect information about their users, products, and environments, and process that information in order to survive and grab more market share.

“If you’re in a competitive industry, you have to deploy it,” said Mike Ableson, head of strategy at GM. “For-profit companies are not able to say we don’t want to deploy AI because it may eliminate jobs,” he said, while urging corporations to retrain their workforces in the face of automation coming online.

The AI imperative is even more pronounced for the military. “We’re late to the game, I’ll say that,” said Matt Driskill, deputy program manager for advanced development at the U.S. Navy’s PMA-234, an office devoted to developing airborne electronic attack systems.

AI is “coming whether we like it or not,” Driskill said. “We might as well invest heavily in it…and shape it, rather than letting our peers get ahold of it and leap ahead,” he added, noting that other countries are eager to gain an AI edge in the private sector as well as on the battlefield.

All the panelists agreed: AI is not optional. Ignoring the trend could bring about the next extinction event—so everyone had better prepare.

“We have to do it to keep up,” Rao said. “I don’t think we have a choice.”