Tim O’Reilly to tech companies: Use AI to do more than cut costs
Tim O’Reilly is well-known for popularizing tech industry buzzwords like ‘open source’ and ‘Web 2.0.’ Now, he wants the tech industry to be more precise in the way that it thinks and talks about artificial intelligence and automation.
“Don’t replace people: augment them,” O’Reilly said onstage at VentureBeat’s Blueprint conference in Reno, Nevada.
To be fair, most tech executives don’t publicize the fact that their technology is going to destroy jobs. But O’Reilly thinks that the way that tech companies currently think about automation is problematic. They think about using AI simply to cut costs — and often, the way companies do that is by cutting jobs. So when tech companies talk about using technology to cut costs — it’s inevitable that workers assume this means that they will lose their jobs. Rather, tech companies need to think about using AI to make those jobs better.
Getting companies to think about using AI to do more than improve their bottom line isn’t just the responsibility of individual companies — it will require an overhaul of the current economic system, said O’Reilly. In his latest book WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, he likens current financial markets to a ‘rogue AI.’ The stock market rewards companies that increase profits at all costs — doing so at the expense of employees. O’Reilly pointed to research that shows that productivity has increased at a far greater rate in the U.S. than median family income as evidence that the current economic system isn’t working.
“There is something deeply wrong in our economy when its making some people richer and some people poorer,” O’Reilly said. He said that companies need to start thinking about how to optimize the economy for human welfare — and what that might look like.
O’Reilly didn’t offer up hard and fast solutions to improve the economy — he said he likes the idea of Universal Basic Income, but doesn’t like the assumption that many of the current arguments around UBI make — that it is necessary because there won’t be enough work in the future. He says that while B corporations are a nice idea in theory, it reinforces the idea that maximizing profits at all costs should remain the status quo. He did cite REI’s co-op model — which redistributes profits back to employees — as a positive model.
“How do we invent a powerful new future — not just little tweaks?” O’Reilly implored the audience to think about.