The promise of artificial intelligence is “completely being wasted”, as business models and technology sector ideology dominate, a globally renowned economist told an audience at the University of Glasgow this week.

Daron Acemoglu, institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, highlighted the “possibility of complementing human decision-making and problem-solving” with AI. He emphasised his view that this was something digital technologies had promised 60 years ago but did not deliver.

He underlined the potential to use AI to help the likes of electricians, plumbers, blue-collar workers and healthcare employees in a way which meant they could still be doing more complex tasks.

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However, Mr Acemoglu declared: “That promise, in my opinion, is completely being wasted. That is not where we are headed. If you are hoping we are going to get better tools for electricians and plumbers, you have a lot of hoping to do.

“We are heading in a very different [direction] because, I am going to argue, [of] business models especially in the United States and the ideology of the tech sector.”

He argued that both of these factors were creating “roadblocks” and “pushing us” in the “wrong direction” when it came to the development of AI, as he delivered a lecture on “artificial intelligence and its role in the economy and society” as part of the University of Glasgow’s Adam Smith Distinguished Speaker Series.

Mr Acemoglu said: “Businesses demand tools, they use tools, but at the end of the day the tools they use are very conditioned by the tech sector.”

He argued that “the real way to increase productivity is not just to automate human labour”.

Mr Acemoglu observed that, while “of course you are going to do that”, the key was to “use technology to complement humans”, providing “better technical expertise, new tools for humans”.

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He declared: “The real promise is in complementing the workers so they can perform new tasks.”

Mr Acemoglu added: “We need to move away from an excessive focus on automation and really start viewing AI technologies as complementary to humans.”

Asking “why is that not the direction we are going”, he noted that US business “wants to make money” and “the tech sector is more and more focused on finding ways of reaching human parity, which is more and more for automation".

He argued that what is being prioritised in the business and tech world is “creating other roadblocks”.

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Mr Acemoglu added: “What we want from AI is more useful information but more useful information needs to be used in the right way by humans.”

He argued that human knowledge was still crucial.

Mr Acemoglu highlighted human creativity, and the ability to experiment and discover things, and share the knowledge.

He argued that, if you did not prioritise human learning, there will be “too much conformity”.

Mr Acemoglu said: “The business model is very much focused on using digital tools for cutting costs.”

He declared that this situation had been exacerbated in the last two decades.

Mr Acemoglu talked about the importance of “reinvigorating democracy” in the context of AI. He highlighted Taiwan as an example of a place which was a leader in both AI and democratic reform.

He added: “If my vision is we need pro-worker AI tools…we can’t do that from an ivory tower. It is like saying I want to help a village in Malawi but I am not going to hear anything from Malawi.”

Mr Acemoglu also said it is a “myth that AI cannot be regulated”. He noted, given the technology’s huge energy use, “you can’t do hidden AI”.

He declared: “If you look at…China, I am not condoning the Chinese Government’s objectives and methods, the entire AI sector is very tightly regulated in China. They just work a lot on what the Chinese government funds, which is surveillance and facial recognition technologies.”