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While there has been a lot of talk about super-smart artificial intelligence lately, one of the leaders in the field thinks there are more pressing problems for humanity to solve.

Andrew Ng, the cofounder of Coursera and former chief scientist at Chinese technology powerhouse Baidu, told an audience at a Harvard Business Review event today that we should be far more concerned about the job losses that will come as a result of machine learning.

“As an AI insider, having built and shipped a lot of AI products, I don’t see a clear path for AI to surpass human-level intelligence,” he said. “I think that job displacement is a huge problem, and the one that I wish we could focus on, rather than be distracted by these science fiction-ish, dystopian elements.”

Ng has been involved with several leading AI projects, including the Google Brain team. While science and technology luminaries like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have cautioned against the rise of artificial intelligences that could surpass humans, Ng said that such an advance isn’t in the immediate future.


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That’s not to say it’s impossible, but he believes other issues are more pressing.

“I’ve been in a lot of private conversations with AI leaders, or business leaders who are working on new AI products that will wipe out tens of thousands of jobs in a single company, maybe more across multiple companies,” Ng said. “And the interesting thing is that a lot of people whose jobs are squarely in the crosshairs of the technologies, a lot of people doing the jobs that are about to go away, they don’t understand AI, they don’t have the training to understand AI. And so a lot of people whose jobs are going to go away don’t know that they’re in the crosshairs.”

Ng said that while technology and artificial intelligence has been great for creating wealth, we still have a lot of work to do if we want to build a fair society on top of these advancements. In particular, Ng called for more educational opportunity, especially as people are pushed out of the jobs they used to hold.

“I think we’re reaching a point where we need to maybe rebuild our educational system, or at least add some new components to our educational system, so that someone whose job is displaced has a good shot at getting themselves the training they need in order to find meaningful work,” he said.

That doesn’t mean Ng wants everyone to learn how to code, but he did say that he hopes there’s an increase in literacy when it comes to creating software. He told VentureBeat that he would like to see a future in which mom-and-pop stores can do the coding necessary to customize the technology that they’re using for their business.

However, he also pointed out that the answer isn’t to have everyone become software developers who can implement AI. In his view, one of the options is to help people who have been forced out of their jobs by automation tackle other work they’d be well-suited to.

“If automation causes welding jobs to go away, could some of the master welders be wind turbine technicians?” Ng suggested. “Not all, because there’s a question of geography…but I think the economy is so diverse.”

Universal basic income, which would provide everyone with a set amount of money to help support themselves, is one of the proposals for dealing with economic disparity caused by massive job loss, and it has gained ground among a number of tech luminaries. Ng likes the idea overall, but he isn’t a big fan of unconditionally paying people.

“I think there’s a lot to the dignity of work, and there’s something about basic income that runs counter to the dignity of work,” Ng said.

The goal of a basic income program shouldn’t be to allow folks to keep driving for ride-sharing companies if they want to be doing something more, in Ng’s view. He would prefer that a basic income program support people learning more and help them get to work that they find meaningful.

There are plenty of difficulties to be found on that path, however. One issue is that some people may not want to go through retraining.

“I think one challenge that’s harder to get around is that if I am a master welder, and a lot of my identity is bound up in the respect I command as a master welder, needing to take on a new role where I’m now a novice, I think that’s emotionally challenging,” he told VentureBeat. “That’s actually a significant challenge we need to get through. For what it’s worth, once I was a master Basic programmer, and then I had to learn Python.”

In addition, there’s also the issue of gaps in opportunity. While businesses need workers to fill new jobs, those gigs may not be in the places that have been hit hardest by automation.

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