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. This report is one of several focusing on AI, based on interviews with Triangle thought leaders.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE – Entrepreneurs pushing the envelop of artificial intelligence in the Triangle include Robbie Allen and Richard Boyd. While they share a vision of AI and machine learning pushing the boundaries of human achievement, they part way one an increasinlg important topic:

The impact of AI on jobs.

For years, pundits have expounded on how artificial intelligence, robots, and machine learning are going to steal jobs and turn some industries into modern buggywhip enterprises. Then again, points out Allen, founder of two Triangle-based AI companies, they’ve been saying that for a long time and U.S. unemployment just came in under 4 percent.

“I’ve been asked about this since 2010,” Allen said in an interview with WRAL Techwire. Allen is a serial entrepreneur who created a number of companies, including Automated Insights, a software robot that turns financial earnings reports and sports stories into human-sounding narratives. “Journalists were worried, ” he said.  (I was worried).

“I did dozens of interviews about the possible impact of AI on jobs. I hear people prognosticating massive job losses and I haven’t seen it. ” Allen said. “But look at the unemployment rate going down.” So the fears have not panned out. “I’m not saying it won’t happen. But lots of people have jobs. Lots of people are hiring for jobs (including his latest company, Infinia Ml.).

Job and industry disruption certainly does happen, he notes. “There will be disruption in jobs and industries as there always has been. New ones will come in behind the old ones.”

Facing a ‘skills issue’

Allen says he doesn’t think we are facing a jobs issue. “We’re facing a skills issue,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more now, jobs not being filled because there are not enough people with the skill sets to fill them. In terms of raw number in jobs, things look good into the foreseeable future.” He pegs that at from five to ten years, after which, speculation is likely to go awry.

But, if he did look into his crystal ball and do some prognosticating, he said. He has a 10-year-old daughter and a 3-year old son, so he would ask, as he did before starting his latest company, “What could be automated? What’s totally safe from automation?”

One area is computer vison and imaging recognition. “The technology is getting very good at that.”

Robbie Allen, founder and CEO of two Triangle-based AI companies, giving a TED-style talk at the NC Tech State of Tech event. Copyright Capitol Cities Broadcasting. All rights reserved.

Radiology and other professions where people are paid to look at an image and analyze it will change. “That doesn’t mean the job of radiologist goes away. People confuse task automation with job automation. It just means we’ll make them better at their job. We’ll give them superpowers.”

Another area, one of his own specialties is also ripe for automation: text analysis. “We’ll be able to decipher lots and lots of text, summarize it, order it, understand it.” Ok, now I’m still worried.

What will be automated? “Vision processing. Look at where the advances in new machine learning have happened: image and video processing. Anywhere people have a job looking at an image or live feed to figure out what is going on is at risk of being automated.

The answer: “I can’t envision an entrepreneur being automated. That will be one of the last things, even in a totally automated society. That’s what I tell young people.”

He thinks programming is safe. “I still think that’s a great profession to get into right now.

He says some AI automation challenges face generational resistance. “Dentistry, for instance,” he said. “They may come up with the best robot dentist in the world, and I’m still probably going to a human dentist for the rest of my life. I don’t know how comfortable I’d be with a robot working on my mouth.”

That’s why full use of autonomous cars may take longer than some expect, he said. “Even if I can say we have studies showing your odds of having a wreck go down, I’m not sure it will be enough.” Some people will regard it as “Mumble-jumble,” and others may resist it even in the face of “Without-a-shadow-of-a-doubt proof.”

Writing code won’t keep you safe

Boyd and his partner David Smith are two of the Triangle’s most successful serial entrepreneurs and also spent time with tech giant, Lockheed Martin. Together, they carved out pioneering technology in the 3D, virtual reality, and gaming space. Their work appears in movies such as James Cameron’s “The Abyss,” shot at an abandoned nuclear facility in South Carolina, and Brian DePalma’s “Mission Impossible” film staring Tom Cruise.

They founded Red Storm Entertainment with best-selling author Tom Clancy and Doug Littlejohns, who was the firm’s first CEO, and Timeline Computer Entertainment with another best-selling writer, Michael Crichton. Boyd will regale you with anecdotes about sitting next to DePalma while he worked with the software, cursing when it didn’t do what he wanted it to.

Richard Boyd, co-founder, Tanjo.ai. Copyright Tanjo.ai.

When Boyd heard Robbie Allen say that our fear of dangerous robots or out-of-control AI is highly unlikely, “I was shaking my head,” Boyd said.

“We already have autonomous weapons systems that can make their own decisions. The only thing that’s keeping us from using them is our doctrine. Do our adversaries share our doctrine?”

It’s accelerating

Boyd said, in an interview with WRAL Techwire, “All kinds of automation are rapidly displacing work and it’s happening at a greater rate than any of us anticipated. I hear tech people say, but ‘We’re going to be fine.’ I wouldn’t get too complacent. Systems that write code are already well advanced. Just because you can write code doesn’t mean you are safe.”

It has all happened before, technology job and industry displacement, he said. “It’s just accelerating.”

He admits, though, that while many predictions said technology would produce double-digit returns in the stock markets and double digit unemployment in the U.S., we saw the market returns but not the unemployment.”

He is on the board of trustees at Wake Tech because “That type of educational organization is a way to get skills ramped up.”

“The hope is that all this automation crates news jobs as it displaces old jobs. App developers didn’t exist 10 years ago. Now there are more app developers than farmers.”

Boyd’s latest company, Tanjo.ai, also founded with Smith, creates “A synthetic population of people” from census, consumer behavior, purchase data, and other sources. The artificial “Personapanels” can then weigh in on marketing questions, such as reacting in real time to an ad, email, or message to consumers. It recently joined Nielson’s Partner Program and will have access to its data on 120 million U.S.  households.

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