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Nadella at DLD
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talks about the “upscaling” effect of AI at the DLD tech conference in Munich. (DLD via YouTube)

Experts on employment trends have long raised concerns about how job markets are being disrupted so quickly by artificial intelligence and automation are disrupting the job market, and now it sounds as if Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella shares those concerns.

Nadella has made AI one of the pillars of Microsoft’s future growth. But during today’s fireside chat at the DLD tech conference in Munich, he acknowledged that the technology comes with moral imperatives attached. It’s not enough to create AI tools that make more money for Microsoft, he said:

“We need technological breakthroughs that drive growth beyond ‘us’… in the world. … We now have to do our very best work, both as tech industry, the rest of the industry, the public sector, the government, in being able to help our people get skilled for the jobs of the future. That, I think, is the most pressing need. So now we’ve got to say, what are the moral equivalents of that? Not only are we going to upscale everyone for new jobs, [we also have to] talk about the returns on capital vs. labor achieving equilibrium. Those are, I think, the pressing challenges of modern democracies.”

Last year, we talked about how the impact of AI and artificial intelligence on employment was one of the biggest issues missed by the presidential candidates. For all the talk about “bringing jobs back” from China and Mexico, economic trends suggest that many of those jobs will be taken on by machines.

The sectors most likely to be hit include transportation and routine occupations ranging from machine operators to all sorts of clerks. (GeekWire contributor Bob Sullivan has a top-50 list on his website.)

In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, more politicians – and tech industry leaders – are speaking out about the jobs vs. automation issue. President Barack Obama nailed it in last week’s farewell address:

“The next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas.  It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete. And so we must forge a new social compact – to guarantee all our kids the education they need; to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now. …”

It’s not as if Nadella just woke up to the issue: Last June, he laid out 10 Laws of AI that hit on the point that “AI must maximize efficiencies without destroying the dignity of people.”

He touched on that theme today as well, saying that “we’re trying to teach machines to learn so that they can do things that humans do, but in turn, help humans. … The next phase to me, really, is how can we democratize this access, versus worshipping the four, five, six companies that have a lot of AI?”

DLD’s video clip of the highlights from Nadella’s chat with Ludwig Siegele, technology editor for The Economist, packs a lot to think about into three minutes. Give it a look, and then judge whether you’re more upbeat or downbeat about the rise of the machines.

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