Though artificial intelligence systems are already becoming a part of daily life, recent debates about AI and the future of work have gained a sense of urgency. The late Stephen Hawking worried that humans “couldn’t compete, and would be superseded” by machines, while Tesla founder Elon Musk has suggested that competition in AI could lead to World War III. The Economist reported earlier this year that nearly half of the jobs in 32 developed countries surveyed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) were vulnerable to automation, declaring, “a wave of automation anxiety has hit the West.”
Ken Goldberg, professor and department chair of industrial engineering and operations research at UC Berkeley, is pushing back on all of that. Instead of embracing the notion that robots will surpass humans and replace us in the workforce (a concept referred to as “singularity”), he argues for “multiplicity” — a hybrid view of how new technologies and people might work in partnership toward human goals. To an extent, he says, this is how AI is already starting to function.
MIT Sloan Management Review correspondent Frieda Klotz spoke with Goldberg about a future in which AI is a complement, not a threat, to workers. What follows is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.
MIT Sloan Management Review: What areas of robotic technology is your lab currently working on?
Goldberg: We’re developing robot software for tasks as wide-ranging as warehouse order fulfillment, home decluttering and robot-assisted surgery. What’s common to all the work we’re doing is the idea of algorithms and learning for robots, improving our ability to analyze data and examples and then use that to build control policies — or models — for how robots can move.
The area I’ve been working on for 35 years is robot grasping — how to reliably pick up objects. It’s easy for humans, but it’s a problem for robots. Basically, every robot is still a klutz, and that’s a big challenge if you want to develop one that will declutter a home or pack boxes in a warehouse.
Can you talk about your concept of multiplicity?
Goldberg: People keep saying we’re on the verge of a transition, the singularity, when computers will take over.