MIT’s David Edelman on How Advanced Technology is Changing the Political and Cultural Landscape

At Nareit’s REITworld: 2018 Annual Conference, the closing lunch general session featured David Edelman, MIT scholar and former White House tech adviser. Edelman split his presentation into three topics—artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and geopolitics—making predictions about how each may affect society in the coming years. Edelman said that while we can expect great technological advancements, we must also remember the importance of emotional intelligence that only humans can bring to the table.

“The same systems that we have designed to help us, they do not know how to prevent from hurting or dividing us,” Edelman said, adding that we need to be the “adult supervision” of AI and advanced technological systems like Facebook.

Edelman introduced two emerging concepts: computer vision, or the ability of computers to see the world around them and make sense of it; and dexterous robotics, robots that are increasingly more agile in their movements and ability to grasp physical items. These new technologies are giving robots the ability to perform in physical space in human-like ways.

Edelman says a machine-learning robotic with computer vision is the “unholy trinity of job displacement,” since it can do things that were previously preserved just for people. But robots can be useful and perform human jobs as long as they help make society more capable, caring, and compassionate, rather than displacing workers, he added.

Advanced technology doesn’t always have to replace humans though eliminating human error, Edelman said, like what autonomous vehicles could one day do for society. With more than 37,000 Americans killed in car accidents in 2017, 6,000 of those pedestrians, makes it the number one preventable cause of death for anyone under the age of 50 in the United States.

“If we can engineer out that single point of failure, shouldn’t we?” Edelman asked the audience. He reiterated his point that humans need to supervise and train artificial intelligence, noting that underneath AI systems are data, much of which is worthless to a computer that doesn’t know what it’s looking at.

Edelman said that cybersecurity’s greatest challenge today is the failings of the human mind and emotions, not the failings of digital systems or firewalls. The weaknesses endemic within any company is simply put the people who work there. “The new face of cybersecurity, in other words, is human,” he said.

And cybertheft too has evolved past simply a virus that infiltrates your computer network, Edelman said. Today, the hacker behind a cyberattack is how a system can be infiltrated.

“[It involves] patience, and persistence, and a little bit of emotional intelligence on the part of the attacker to sit on a network and watch how much money is sent, and when; what language. Who uses contractions and who doesn’t,” he said.

Edelman closed out his presentation talking about geopolitics. A computer designed in California, manufactured in China, running software that was programmed in Sweden, following technical standards created in Singapore, and running today out of your office or home—the same as it would anywhere else in the world—is a modern miracle, he said.

“That is a triumph of humanity, globalization, and common purpose,” he said. But we should be cognizant of an erosion of geopolitical trust at the global level motivated by state security or a desire to protect privacy.

“There are these little cracks that are forming in the political consensus that has long been built to reflect the internet’s underlying architecture,” he said. “And that is that the internet is single, and global.”

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