Artificial intelligence may make your life easier – and take your job

Ever smarter machines embedded with artificial intelligence may soon save your life. The machines may also steal your job.

The promises – and perils – of artificial intelligence drew a handful of lawmakers to the first Senate hearing on the topic. Experts at the Wednesday afternoon session talked of drones that can zoom through forests, real-time language translation devices and digital assistants that halt physicians from making errors.

Artificial intelligence is evolving at a disruptive and accelerated rate, they said.

“The economic impact of artificial intelligence will likely be in the multiples of trillions of dollars,” said Eric Horvitz, director of Microsoft Research.

Senators from both parties wanted to know how the United States could maintain its technological lead in machine learning and artificial intelligence and handle regulatory hurdles that could slow development. Several also fretted about machines replacing human workers.

“While new jobs will be created because of artificial intelligence, we also have to think critically about the steps we can take . . . to make sure American workers are not left behind,” said Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat who’s the ranking member of the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee.

“We’ve got to prepare,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, adding that truck and taxi drivers could lose their jobs as self-driving vehicles become more common.

“If a whole occupation is suddenly displaced, what do we do? We just came through an election where the loss of jobs was a big issue,” Nelson said.

Rather than focusing on the economic disruptions, several of the experts drew attention to the lifesaving capabilities of smarter machines, including self-driving vehicles that employ automated braking and control systems.

“We can take a big cut out of the 30,000 (motor vehicle) deaths that we’ve become accustomed to and tolerate every year in our country,” Horvitz said, adding that those who would benefit include another 300,000 or so riders who suffer injuries in accidents.

The ability of computers to process vast amounts of data can lead to split-second lifesaving decisions, said Andrew W. Moore, the dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“If an autonomous car is about to hit a deer, and it’s about point-2 seconds from an impact, it can spend the first twentieth of a second gaming out millions of possibilities of what it can do and what the deer is going to do to maximize the chance that people will survive,” Moore said.

Industry must get self-driving right with as few errors as possible, Peters said.

“If you had some sort of catastrophic event, a crash – and there will be some crashes, certainly – it could set back the industry dramatically because of consumer pushback,” Peters said.

A self-driving Tesla crashed in Florida last May, killing its driver, who reportedly was watching a movie when his car drove under an 18-wheeler crossing a highway. The car’s roof was sheered off by the bottom of the truck’s trailer.

Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said artificial intelligence had the potential to be “as powerful and transformative as the internet has been.”

Other experts said artificial intelligence, with its capacity to sort through massive data sets, could bring change to manufacturing, alleviate urban congestion, transform land use and even help find solutions to social problems like homelessness.

“We’re kind of in the vacuum tube era, and the transistor is out there,” said Greg Brockman, co-founder of OpenAI, a nonprofit artificial intelligence research company partly funded by Elon Musk, the business tycoon behind Tesla electric automobiles, the SpaceX aerospace company and SolarCity, an energy services company.

Moore warned that other countries are pumping out engineers at a much faster rate than the United States and could threaten the nation’s edge in artificial intelligence. He called for a renewed emphasis beginning in middle schools. Pupils need to be given math training even when they don’t think they have a gift, he said.

“It’s not that you need to be a genius. You need to be trained in math,” Moore said.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4