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Tim O’Reilly is known for popularizing tech industry buzzwords like “open source” and “Web 2.0.” Now he wants the tech industry to be more precise in the way it thinks and talks about artificial intelligence and automation.

“Don’t replace people: Augment them,” O’Reilly said onstage at VentureBeat’s Blueprint conference in Reno, Nevada.

To be fair, most tech executives don’t publicize the fact that their technology is going to destroy jobs. But O’Reilly thinks that the way tech companies currently think about automation is problematic. They focus on using AI to reduce costs — which often translates to eliminating jobs. Instead, tech companies need to think about using AI to make those jobs better.

Getting companies to think about using AI to do more than improve their bottom line isn’t just the responsibility of individual companies — it will require an overhaul of the current economic system, said O’Reilly. In his latest book WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, he likens current financial markets to a “rogue AI.” The stock market rewards companies that increase profits at all costs — doing so at the expense of employees. O’Reilly pointed to research showing that productivity in the U.S. has increased at a far greater rate than median family income as evidence that the current economic system isn’t working.

“There is something deeply wrong in our economy when it’s making some people richer and some people poorer,” O’Reilly said. He said that companies need to start thinking about how to optimize the economy for human welfare — and what that might look like.

O’Reilly didn’t offer up hard and fast solutions to this thorny problem. He said he likes the idea of Universal Basic Income but not the assumption that many UBI supporters make — that it is necessary because there won’t be enough work in the future. And he added that while B corporations are a nice idea in theory, it reinforces the idea that maximizing profits at all costs should remain the status quo. He did cite REI’s co-op model — which redistributes profits back to employees — as an interesting alternative.

O’Reilly left the audience with a big question: “How do we invent a powerful new future — not just little tweaks?”


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