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Microsoft president Brad Smith predicts AI will be as transformative to society as the combustion engine over the next 3 decades


Brad Smith

  • Microsoft president Brad Smith spoke about the societal implications of tech at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon on Wednesday. 
  • Touching on a range of topics ranging from human rights to neural networks, the 60-year-old said artificial intelligence will over the next three decades play a similar role to the internal combustion engine in transforming society during the first half of the twentieth century.
  • Smith also emphasized the essentially value-neutral status of AI, arguing that we should ask what AI should do for society as much as asking what its technical capabilities are.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

LISBON — Microsoft president Brad Smith has predicted that artificial intelligence will transform society in the next three decades, just as the internal combustion engine did during the first half of the 20th century.

Smith was speaking at the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal on Wednesday, where he discussed the intersection between tech and society.

He said: "When we look to the decade ahead, in many respects AI will be a tool of the sort the world has seldom seen before, and hence it can become a weapon as well. When you look back at the first half of the twentieth century, it was a time that was transformed by one invention above all else: the combustion engine. 

"[The combustion engine] led to the car and the airplane; it led to the truck and the tractor; it changed every part of every economy. I think it's fair to say  that over the next three decades — from now to 2050 — AI is likely to play a similar role in the global economy."

Artificial intelligence face recognition.

Smith mused on what the societal implications might be, adding that the tech industry must take a broader outlook on the possible consequences of AI.

"It really calls on us [the tech industry] to think as never before about what this means in terms of broader societal implications. As we do so, I think it's actually helpful to start by reflecting on a fundamental fact: these are not new questions. This technology may be new, but these questions are as old as technology itself."

 The 60-year old, who also serves as Microsoft's chief legal officer, added that the topic of AI is an ethical as much as a technological one, urging the tech industry and society at large to remember this.

"In some ways, [this is] the fundamental question of our times. We shouldn't just ask what computers can do. We need to ask what they should do, and we need to think hard, because we are the first generation in the history of humanity who will empower machines to make decision that were previously only made by people. If we get it wrong, every generation that follows us will pay a price."

Smith has talked up the positive and negative implications of AI before, calling for greater regulation around applications such as facial recognition, for example. Other tech titans, such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk, have also made various doomsaying predictions about AI, with Musk predicting the technology couldsupercharge poisonous social media debate.

SEE ALSO: Microsoft President Brad Smith says these are the 10 biggest challenges facing tech in 2019

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