MR. METZ This is an ongoing problem. There have been very real and very significant gains in image recognition, speech recognition and language translation over the last several years. That can help with talking digital assistants, driverless cars and certain aspects of health care — not to mention face recognition services and autonomous weapons. But so many tech executives — and the press — talk about “A.I.” in a weirdly exaggerated way. Driverless cars are still years from the mainstream. Better translation is very different from a more general intelligence that can do anything a human can do.
MR. GELLES Nellie, you spoke with Meredith Whittaker and Tristan Harris, two cautionary voices in tech today. Do you get the sense that the people really making decisions at companies like Facebook and Google are really listening to them, or merely pretending to care about the issues they’re raising?
MS. BOWLES I would ask what exactly it means to care. Do they as people want an A.I. apocalypse in which we are all house cats for computers? Of course not. But are they for-profit companies that want to win this new arms race? Yes. They seem to respond mostly to public opprobrium, making major ethical changes after whistle-blowers or big investigations come out. YouTube knows how troubling its YouTube Kids product is, yet it has been running for years. Only after the public complains enough will they take filtering seriously or take the product off the market.
MR. GELLES Another through line in conversations during the week was the degree to which A.I. and automation could decimate thousands (millions?) of jobs. The consensus seems to be that enormous workplace displacement is imminent. There’s less consensus about what to do about it. Nellie, what do our all-powerful Silicon Valley overlords say about all this? Are we all just going to live off a Universal Basic Income that supports our indulgent Amazon Prime habits?
MS. BOWLES I feel like I’m the bearer of bad news in this chat, but guys, the overlords are pretty sure that soon most people won’t be very useful. I recently profiled the Silicon Valley C.E.O.’s favorite philosopher, Yuval Noah Harari, and this is his argument. He hopes the futuristic vision he paints will be a call to arms, but most here are resigned to what they see as coming. But yes, that’s why they like UBI. It seems like a nice enough fix to stave off revolution.
MR. GELLES Did we mention that the fire alarm went off? When the power finally came back on at the end of the day, I was about to walk onstage for one of the final sessions. But then lights started flashing, alarms started blaring and everyone had to evacuate the ballroom. Is that a metaphor for something? Could an A.I.-powered hotel have fixed that? Or was it just time to go home?
MS. BOWLES The building A.I. knew you were about to go on stage, Gelles.
MR. METZ Either that, or the building A.I. isn’t nearly as intelligent as people make it out to be.