An NYU professor says the debate about the future of AI is distorted by 'a tremendous amount of misplaced optimism and fear'

An NYU professor says the debate about the future of AI is distorted by 'a tremendous amount of misplaced optimism and fear'

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New York University professor Amy Webb.

  • Amy Webb is an NYU professor and futurist who studies artificial intelligence.
  • At a Davos panel of AI experts, she argued that the exaggerated fears and optimism around the technology come from ignoring the fact that humans are in charge of its development and use.
  • She cautioned against both the current American and Chinese approaches, of a lack or abundance of oversight, and advocated for setting both national and international regulations and standards.
  • This article is part of Business Insider's ongoing series on Better Capitalism.

It can be hard to distinguish sci-fi fantasies from projections on where artificial intelligence is headed.

New York University professor Amy Webb, who is also the founder of the Future Today Institute and author of the upcoming book "The Big Nine," put it bluntly: "There's a tremendous amount of misplaced optimism and fear when it comes to AI."

Webb was one of the members of the panel moderated by Wired's editor in chief, Nicholas Thompson, at the World Economic Forum's 2019 annual conference in Davos, Switzerland. "I think the key issue, not just in a regulatory issue conversation framework, but just in general for us all to bear in mind, is there are nine companies that control the future of AI, and as AI is the next era of computing, we ought to be paying attention to them," Webb said.


Those nine companies are the American giants Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, and Apple (which Webb likes to call the G-MAFIA), as well as the Chinese internet leaders Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (commonly referred to as the BAT companies).

Webb explained:

"The challenge is that there's a relatively few number of people who are making decisions on behalf of us all. And it's not just software at this point. They are building the frameworks, they are building custom silicon, and every single company has to align themselves with one of these big nine. And every single consumer is touching one of those companies.

"The G-MAFIA are publicly traded companies and they are, as a result of that, very much beholden to Wall St. In the United States, we have no regulations, so there's an antagonistic relationship between DC and the Valley. And in China, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are also independent companies - it's China, so they're tethered to the wills of Beijing.

"And this sets, I think, humanity and democracy as we know it up for some challenges in the years to come."


So what does that mean?

Well, first of all, Webb said, "'AI' is a pretty meaningless term that even the AI community itself disagrees on." Her fellow panelists Lee Kai-Fu, Chinese venture capitalist and AI researcher, and David Siegel, computer scientist and investor, agreed, noting that AI has become a catch-all for software that can use data sets to influence decisions it makes on its own. To Webb's overall point about the confusion around AI developments, Lee added that, at least right now, AI's use of "deep learning" is a tool for humans.

Webb explained that it's necessary to understand that we're in charge of AI. There is nothing inevitable about an AI revolution, and that's why it's worth taking a sober look at what AI is and whose hands are on the dials.

Don't fear the robots - be wary of the people who control them

In another Davos presentation, MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini illustrated how facial-recognition AI learns from given data sets. She shared her team's research with IBM, which showed that while its software was highly accurate in recognizing light-skinned faces, it had difficulty recognizing faces of people with dark complexions. IBM had its team bolster its data set and made the tool substantially more accurate.

Read more: Top highlights from Davos 2019

Similarly, AI has the potential to assist medical professionals with predictive analytics, but in the United States, software has been largely reliant on synthetic data sets due to privacy issues. AI is not an unstoppable, omniscient force, but is very much in our control.


In the panel, Webb argued that as the use of AI as a tool proliferates, governments will need to make important decisions. She expressed skepticism of both the prevailing approaches thus far: the American approach of no oversight or the Chinese approach of total oversight.

Webb said that while countries will have their own priorities, there needs to be private-public partnerships over establishing guidelines for how citizens' data is collected and how it will be utilized by AI-powered software.

Over the next 50 years, we shouldn't be afraid of a sci-fi style threat from rebellious sentient robots, but we should be wary of how both corporations and governments are utilizing increasingly sophisticated software. We need to set rules and standards for the sake of individuals' rights, Webb argued. AI is a tool, and while dangerous in the wrong hands, it's one that has the potential to better the lives of millions of people.

As she wrote in the introduction to her book, "The Big Nine aren't the villains in this story. In fact, they are our best hope for our future."

You can watch the full panel discussion below: