This week at the World Economic Forum (WEF), an annual gathering that put tech executives at the same table as far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff called San Francisco the canary in the coal mine.

“San Francisco is kind of a train wreck; we have a real inequality problem,” he said. “It’s because of the tech sector.”

Benioff and Salesforce, which has the largest skyscraper on the San Francisco skyline, led the Prop C campaign, a $300 million business tax aimed at reducing homelessness in San Francisco that is currently held up in court. Benioff also asserted at the gathering in Davos, Switzerland that artificial intelligence is “a new human right” that all people deserve.

“Those who have the artificial intelligence will be smarter, will be healthier, will be richer, and of course, you’ve seen their warfare will be significantly more advanced,” he said.

As AI is becoming ubiquitous in business and society, influencing money lending, the future of work, and whether a person gets out of prison, it’s not surprising that Benioff calls it a human right. Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott recently talked to VentureBeat about the role AI plays in citizenship in the 21st century.

The future of AI was a main topic at Davos this week, but it was also on the mind of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a woman quickly becoming the most popular freshman Congresswoman in recent memory.

While talking about IBM working with the NYPD to use facial recognition software to identify people by race, Ocasio-Cortez said algorithms always contain inequities because they’re made by human beings, concluding, “If you don’t fix the assumptions, you’re automating the bias.”

If technologists or computer scientists that hear this assertion scoff because an algorithm is math and racism is a human phenomena, they’re missing the forest for the trees. The same goes for anyone who finds Benioff’s insistence that AI is a human right to be hyperbolic.

However accurate you find their statements, both Benioff and Ocasio-Cortez acknowledge a larger truth: AI is spreading everywhere, but its benefits are being unevenly distributed.

According to a Brookings Institution report out this week, AI will create some jobs and disrupt many others, disproportionately affecting certain occupations (production, food services, transportation), cities (Toledo, Ohio; Fresno, California), states (Indiana and Kentucky), and segments of the population (men, people of color, and people with no bachelor’s degree).

The potential for inequality and mass surveillance driven by facial recognition software is part of why Microsoft is asking for government regulation and in the months ahead could enter the conversation surrounding the 2020 presidential campaign cycle.

After all, San Francisco is home to many standard bearers of the Democratic Party: the current Speaker of the House, the governor of California, and both California Senators, including former SF District Attorney and 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris.

Negative outcomes don’t tell the entire story about AI, of course.

There’s no shortage of examples of bias algorithms, but it’s wrong to assume all algorithms are bad news or reject the notion that AI can have positive outcomes in people’s lives.

AI isn’t just delivering poor experiences for women of color or being used to justify more police in communities of color — it’s also being used to note when police are rude to the public, help people understand their rightspredict cardiac arrest faster than humans, diagnose malaria, track poachers, simulate wildfires, and increase crop yield to feed a growing world.

There are even people who argue that it can be unethical to not use AI in some instances.

If you believe, as the WEF has said, that we are entering a fourth industrial revolution, it’s not too much to say that machines endowed with human intelligence are building a new world.

What kind of world will that be?

We have yet to see all the ingenious solutions that will be created by young minds or the many ways AI can be used to solve problems instead of perpetuating them.

Whether people want to go so far as to call AI a human right seems like an issue that will be open to debate as the technology continues to evolve, but it’s clear that opportunity and access, not just innovation and compute power, will shape the future of artificial intelligence, and how we all think about tech.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Khari Johnson and Kyle Wiggers — and be sure to bookmark our AI Channel

Thanks for reading,

Khari Johnson
AI Staff Writer

P.S. Please enjoy this quick video about an ice-skating robot from ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

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