Editor’s note: Artificial intelligence is being called this age’s most profound opportunity or gravest threat. Thought leaders from across North Carolina and beyond gathered last week in Durham to discuss the implications of AI on the future of work and beyond. WRAL TechWire’s co-founder Allan Maurer attended the event, and in this the second of several articles he provides a detailed look at AI from the viewpoint of Triangle companies from startups to global leader IBM. This story offers Sageworks chair and co-founder Brian Hamilton’s historical perspective on AI and work.

RALEIGH – Back when Raleigh-based Sageworks was in the First Flight Venture Center incubator in Research Triangle Park, said Brian Hamilton, co-founder and chair, AI answered questions no one asked, he said in a TED-style talk to the State of Technology audience in Durham.

“You have to understand the objective of what you are trying to achieve,” he said. “We use technology to achieve something specific.”

Sageworks was very specific in tanking numbers and converting them to natural language, “But when we went to market, not a lot of people were interested in that,” he said. “The financial guys who understand numbers asked, ‘Why would we want to do that?’ So we had to find out who the customer would be.

Brian Hamilton Copyright, Sageworks

Hamilton and his co-founder, Sarah Tourville met when they were teaching at Duke University. They spent two years developing Sageworks’ Financial Information into Narrative Data (FIND), which is the tech behind its ProfitCents product, but struggled to market it. But Citibank and Intuit were early adopters and in 2004, it licensed its ProfitCents product that collects U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission data into plain English text, to Lexus Nexis.

An historic context

Today, it sells a variety of data products including its cloud-based information on banks and credit unions, CFO financial analysis tools, LoanSage, which helps small business owners obtain loans, and others.

Like some other speakers giving TED-style talks at the NC Tech event, Hamilton thinks a lot of coverage of AI reminds him of the 1960s fears that overpopulation would grow so much the “World would almost end.” Despite all the talk about AI and jobs and its potential, “There is a lot of ambiguity, ” he said.

“I’m a history geek,” Hamilton said, “So I try to put things in an historical context. The relative rate of technological change today is much less than that between 1865 and 1920 when Marx worried that machines would replace people. When I look at what we’re doing now, even with the Internet, the relative change now is less than certain other periods in time.”

While change resulted in periods of unemployment and displacement, the unemployment rate has gone down as technology went up. Even though some industries displaced others, new industries come in and create other opportunities. History can’t always predict the future, but we can learn from it.”

He said “I’m torn about AI generally. The American economy has been very adaptive. But there could be temporary displacement.” In particular, he worries about people who lack educational and skills advantage. “We have a challenge as entrepreneurs to create more technology, but we have an educational issue to help those not as advantaged.”

More coverage: Can artificial intelligence bring more truth to marketing?

IBM exec says AI won’t eliminate all jobs – but they will be different.