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On Prevailing Attitudes Towards EmTech: Interview With Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau

We’re excited to have Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau, CEO and publisher of MIT Technology Review. Prior to her current position, Elizabeth was the global managing director of the Economist Corporate Network.

Today, she’ll be sharing her thoughts on the attitudes towards emerging technology and the impact emerging technology and Artificial Intelligence will have on people.

Wan Wei: Hello Elizabeth and thank you for joining us today. Before we begin, could you tell us more about yourself and what you’re currently doing?

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau: I am the CEO and publisher of MIT Technology Review. I’m based right at the edge of MIT’s campus in Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We are an independent media company that’s owned by MIT. We publish on emerging technologies that are likely to change the way we live and work in the next ten years, 20 years, and beyond. We tend not to focus on things like new devices or the latest iPhone release or gaming or things like that. We publish articles about emerging technologies that have very ambitious potential impact on the world.

As publisher and CEO, I run the team that makes it happen as well as producing a magazine and web content and a whole bunch of other things.

On the Attitudes of People Towards Emerging Technology

Wan Wei: As the head of MIT Technology Review, you keep a close eye on the different types of technology that is being developed. At the pace at which new technologies are developing, if you have to choose just one technology to watch out for this year, which emerging tech would it be?

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau: We just did an entire issue of our magazine about China and China’s role in the world as an emerging technology superpower, and how that will impact the world.

I’m quite obsessed with CRISPR, in bioengineering. We’ve written quite a number of fascinating articles that have caused me to think hard about humanity and what it means to be human and what it might mean for our world if some of us – specifically the rich – are able to alter their genes.

Recently twins whose genes had been modified using CRISPR were born in China. That is raising quite a few ethical concerns. So that’s one thing I’ve got a bit of an obsession with at the moment; But if you ask me next week, I may have a different answer.

Wan Wei: You raised a good point about the ethical concerns about the effects of new technology. Do you think people’s attitudes towards emerging technology has changed?

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau: Right now, we are spending a lot of time thinking about the societal impact of technology. Traditionally people used to say technology will make the world better. Anyone with a phone that is connected to the internet will have access to information, and that will lead to a freedom of ideas and broader literacy and education and democracy.

Over the past two, three years, we as much everyone else have recognised that this idealism was overly simplistic. We can look at events like the Brexit vote, the presidential elections in the US in 2016, or the incitement of violence in certain countries – these were all instances in which technology and the platforms it has enabled were not always a good thing. They did not necessarily make our world better.

We are thinking – and writing and publishing – about how we need to make sure we don’t just allow technology companies to run ahead as they please, focused on financial rewards and not societal impact. We have to make sure that technology companies are regulated and controlled in ways that will make sure that the greatest good is done for the greatest number of people.

Wan Wei: The focus on the social impact of technology is not something that is generally talked about. Has MIT Technology Review caught onto any suspicious technology company before?

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau: We look at things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and we understand that technology was actually used against quite a large number of people, and again, in the case of the 2016 [US Presidential] elections and the case of Brexit.

So we’ve done a lot of looking into how technology will impact the economy and the way we live and work in the future. We want to make sure that the right decisions are made around the impact of AI. AI is an incredibly powerful tool. But again, it’s not free of all potential for damage. So, we have to be careful about things like bias and how do we protect against unforeseen consequences of the biases that might exist in AI algorithms.

On the Impact Technology and AI will have on the Individual

Wan Wei: As you stated with Cambridge Analytica, Brexit and the 2016 elections, AI can be an incredibly powerful tool for both good and harm. But these are all massive events that the individual may not feel like it affects them.

On a more personal topic, what do you think about the future of work? It’s clear that in many industries AI and robotics would displace many jobs. Do you think that retraining and reskilling employees for other jobs will outpace the rate of job loss?

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau: The most honest answer to that question is that I don’t know. I see a lot of studies saying one or the other. For every study that says we will see 40% job loss over the next 20 years, you see another saying there will not be any significant job loss at all because people will be retrained and AI and robotics will enhance the human intelligence for the foreseeable future.

What I think is important, if we aren’t asking the question about what will it mean if you have robots or AIs that are doing the job of humans and we aren’t reskilling and retraining, what will it mean for our society and what will it mean for people who are disaffected by loss of jobs? If we aren’t asking those questions, then we are going to be sorry.

I think so much of it depends on really good and conscious decisions being made by people with power and access to power. We will get the outcome that we deserve based on how well we get people thinking. I would like us to figure out ways to retrain people who are impacted by job loss because that’s the kind of society I want to live in. It’s not a guarantee that it will occur that way if we don’t do things like elect people who care about the same issues, who talk to the folks in industry and make sure the right things are done to retrain employees who lose their jobs and so forth.

Wan Wei: Thank you for the insights that you’ve shared with us. On a parting note, do you have anything else to add?

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau: Just that MIT Technology Review and the work of the team is something we are very proud of. We are looking at really smart, important topics around the way the world is changing as a result of technology. It’s an exciting time to be doing this work. It’s a tremendous honour to get to listen to people talk about the brilliant things that they do to improve the world we live in. It gives me hope.

Wan Wei: Thank you very much for your time Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau: My pleasure.