Current trends in AI are nothing if not remarkable. Day after day, we hear stories about systems and machines taking on tasks that, until very recently, we saw as the exclusive and permanent preserve of humankind: making medical diagnoses, drafting legal documents, designing buildings, and even composing music.


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Our concern here, though, is with something even more striking: the prospect of high-level machine intelligence systems that outperform human beings at essentially every task. This is not science fiction. In a recent survey the median estimate among leading computer scientists reported a 50% chance that this technology would arrive within 45 years.

Time until machines outperform humans, taken from report 'Positive AI Economic Futures'. Source: The World Economic Forum.

Importantly, that survey also revealed considerable disagreement. Some see high-level machine intelligence arriving much more quickly, others far more slowly, if at all. Such differences of opinion abound in the recent literature on the future of AI, from popular commentary to more expert analysis.

Yet despite these conflicting views, one thing is clear: if we think this kind of outcome might be possible, then it ought to demand our attention. Continued progress in these technologies could have extraordinarily disruptive effects – it would exacerbate recent trends in inequality, undermine work as a force for social integration, and weaken a source of purpose and fulfilment for many people.

Experts gather to share their AI visions

In April 2020, an ambitious initiative called Positive AI Economic Futures was launched by Stuart Russell and Charles-Edouard Bouée, both members of the World Economic Forum’s Global AI Council (GAIC). In a series of workshops and interviews, over 150 experts from a wide variety of backgrounds gathered virtually to discuss these challenges, as well as possible positive Artificial Intelligence visions and their implications for policymakers.

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Those included Madeline Ashby (science fiction author and expert in strategic foresight), Ken Liu (Hugo Award-winning science fiction and fantasy author), and economists Daron Acemoglu (MIT) and Anna Salomons (Utrecht), among many others. What follows is a summary of these conversations, developed in the Forum’s report Positive AI Economic Futures.

What will constitute ‘work’ in a future

Participants were divided on this question. One camp thought that, freed from the shackles of traditional work, humans could use their new freedom to engage in exploration, self-improvement, volunteering, or whatever else they find satisfying. Proponents of this view usually supported some form of universal basic income (UBI), while acknowledging that our current system of education hardly prepares people to fashion their own lives, free of any economic constraints. […]

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