The promise of artificial intelligence (AI) to remake every industry raises more and more questions about job displacement, education, inequality, the ethics of code, and even what it means to be human. These questions are among the many that the Techonomy community has been grappling with over the past several years. And while the technology continues to race forward — and the questions become even more critical — it is instructive to look at how the conversation has evolved.
What follows are just some of the discussions that the Techonomy community has led, as AI moved from science fiction to reality.

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We start in June of 2016 when we gathered an eminent group of tech and business leaders and found there wasn’t even agreement on how to define AI. Sridhar Sudarsan, a top technologist with IBM’s Watson group, gave it a good shot when he said that at last one of four characteristics of human thinking must be involved for a computing process to be considered “cognitive computing,” the way IBM refers to AI. The four characteristics: understanding information, correlating it with other information, reasoning about it, and learning in a way that affects future decision making.
Later that same year, Ray Kurzweil, one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers, and futurists put a date on it. Speaking at Techonomy 2016 Kurzweil said 2029 would be the year computers will actually understand human language at human levels. See the full discussion here.
At the same time, PV Kannan offered a reality check, arguing that we were in “the inflated expectations stage of the AI hype cycle. In most near-to-midterm scenarios, businesses will be best served by supervised or semi-supervised machine learning.” That’s a point of view that rings even more true today. Read his perspective here.
And tech journalist Jennifer Schenker raised the question of how to balance ethics with AI, a question that we’ve started to see spill out into the real world as autonomous cars take the road and courts begin to use AI to help in sentencing. This issue came to life at Techonomy 2016 in a conversation between Schenker and Francesca Rossi, a research scientist at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.
While ethicists worried about how to embed human judgement into machines, Alexey Sokolin warned that machines were encroaching on what we think of as a purely human endeavor: creativity. “Beware, artists,” he wrote in an article in 2016. “Automation will impact not only the analytical industries, but also those that require creativity, originality and intuition — domains that were once believed to be uniquely human. If you are an artist, musician, or writer, artificial intelligence is about to present challenges and opportunities that rivaled the ones posed to painters by the invention of photography in the 1800s. What now seems like a crude hollow reproduction of a mystical human endeavor could eventually be responsible for the bulk of all art, initiated by humans but outsourced to machines.”
One year later, at Techonomy 2017, the promise of AI was greater as was the level of concern about unintended consequences and the speed of technological development outpacing our ability to recognize all of its repercussions. Benjamin H. Bratton, Professor, Visual Arts, University of California, San Diego, Mary Lou Jepsen, Founder and CEO, Openwater, Tessa Lau, CTO and Chief Robot Whisperer, Savioke, and Rohit Prasad, Vice President and Head Scientist, Alexa Machine Learning, Amazon, laid out a mind-bending array of possibilities coupled with an equal number of ethical quandaries. See the full discussion, “Can We Handle the Coming Convergence of Man and Machine?” That conversation was followed with a discussion with John Kelly, Senior Vice President, Cognitive Solutions and IBM Research, on AI, Cognitive Computing & Security.
So many possibilities, but what will that mean for the work force? Byron Auguste, President and Co-Founder, Opportunity@Work, Diana Farrell, President and CEO, JPMorgan Chase Institute, Sasan Goodarzi, Executive Vice President and General Manager Small Business Group, Intuit, Sheila Marcelo, Founder, Chairwoman, and CEO,, Paul Roehrig, Head of Strategy, Cognizant Digital Business, Cognizant, had a rich discussion on how AI is changing the nature of work, a topic on which we’ve published several pieces from our community including: Robots Want Your Tasks, Not Your Jobs (or Why the Liberal Arts Still Matter) and Will Bots Take Our Jobs? Yes and No, the basis for our new infographic. Click on the image to enlarge.
The conversation continues. It was a central focus at Davos, where Techonomy CEO David Kirkpatrick led a discussion entitled: “Could AI Be Society’s Secret Weapon for Growth?” with Missy Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory, David Kenny, senior vice president, IBM Watson, Brad Smith, president, Microsoft, and Paul Daugherty, chief technology officer, Accenture.
And AI and its implications for work and society will be a focus at our upcoming event, Techonomy NYC, on May 8 and 9. See the full agenda here.