“The Great Transformation” –Can AI & Robotics Save the World? (Today’s Top Science Headline)

 

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"Can AI, advanced robotics, self-driving cars, and other recent breakthroughs spread prosperity to the population at large?" Artificial intelligence is offering an amazing opportunity to increase prosperity, but whether or not ­we will seize it is our choice. “If workers in their late 40s or mid 50s are replace by automation, will they actually be able to acquire the skills required for new jobs, and will they actually be hired if they acquire those skills? We have to invest a lot in skills and education and mobility, and—even though that sounds hard—it’s harder than you think.”


“It’s almost simple Econ 101. Technology will displace more and more humans and more and more tasks currently done by humans. That will reduce the demand for labor, which in turn will reduce the returns to labor. My concern is what this does to wages. If a significant share of human workers have the value of their skills undermined by automation, it means lower wages. It’s that simple.”

The vast vacant lot along the Monongahela River has been a scar from Pittsburgh’s industrial past for decades, continues David Rotman in MIT Technology Review. It was once the site of the Jones and Laughlin steelworks, one of the largest such facilities in the city back when steel was the dominant industry there. Most of the massive structures are long gone, leaving behind empty fields pocked with occasional remnants of steelmaking and a few odd buildings. It all stares down the river at downtown Pittsburgh.

Next to the sprawling site is one of Pittsburgh’s poorer neighborhoods, Hazelwood, where a house can go for less than $50,000. As with many of the towns that stretch south along the river toward West Virginia, like McKeesport and Duquesne, the economic reasons for its existence—steel and coal—are a fading memory.

These days the old steel site, called Hazelwood Green by its developers, is coming back to life. At one edge, fenced off from prying eyes, is a test area for Uber’s self-driving cars. A new road, still closed to the public, traverses the 178 acres of the site, complete with parking signs, fire hydrants, a paved bike path, and a sidewalk. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture it bustling with visitors to the planned park along the riverfront.

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The gem of the redevelopment effort is Mill 19, the former coke works. A structure more than a quarter-­mile long, sitting amid the empty fields, it has been stripped clean to a three-story metal skeleton. Crews of workers are clearing away remaining debris and preparing the building for its reincarnation. By next spring, if all goes according to plan, its first occupant will move in: the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute.

The symbolism of robots moving into a former steelworks is lost on few people in the city. Pittsburgh is reinventing itself, using the advances in automation, robots, and artificial intelligence coming out of its schools—particularly Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)—to try to create a high-tech economy. Lawrenceville, five miles from Hazelwood, has become a center for US development of self-driving cars. Uber Advanced Technologies occupies a handful of industrial buildings; self-driving startups Argo AI and Aurora Innovation are nearby. Even Caterpillar has set up shop, working on autonomous backhoes and other heavy machines that could one day operate themselves.

Can AI, advanced robotics, self-driving cars, and other recent breakthroughs spread prosperity to the population at large?

This has drawn billions of dollars from Silicon Valley and elsewhere, a welcome development in a city whose economy has been moribund for decades. And the effects are visible. Self-driving cars out for a test ride are a common sight, as are lines outside the trendy restaurants in what civic boosters call “Robotics Row.” While many longtime residents complain of skyrocketing home prices near the tech firms’ headquarters and test facilities, they’ll also tell you these are the best days the city has seen in their lifetimes.

But despite all this activity, Pittsburgh’s economy is struggling by many measures. Though the city’s population is no longer hemorrhaging away—between 1970 and 1980 it fell by roughly a fifth—it isn’t growing, either, and is aging quickly. During the last half-decade, almost 70,000 people aged 35 to 54 have left the region. And not far from the city and its elite universities, in areas where the main hope for prosperity lies in coal and natural gas from fracking rather than self-driving cars, well-­paying jobs are scarce and towns are being devastated by opioid addiction.

This makes Pittsburgh not only a microcosm of the US industrial heartland but a test case for the question facing every city and country with access to new digital technologies: Can AI, advanced robotics, self-driving cars, and other recent breakthroughs spread prosperity to the population at large, or will they just concentrate the wealth among entrepreneurs, investors, and some highly skilled tech workers?

To prosper, says Scott Andes at the National League of Cities, Pittsburgh “can’t just be a producer of brilliant talent and ideas that then don’t turn into job generation.” He adds, “Pittsburgh is a great case study for the 21st-century economy, because it is beginning to leverage research strengths into economic value.”

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