LTU president ‘optimistic’ about a high-tech future, but there are worries too

DETROIT—Lawrence Technological University President Tarek M. Sobh said he is “incredibly optimistic” about a future full of artificial intelligence and robot workers, as part of a panel discussion on the effect of technology on the jobs of tomorrow.

But when asked what scares him about that future? Killer robots. (Don’t worry, he was kidding. Well, mostly.)

On the plus side, Sobh said that artificial intelligence won’t replace workers so much as create jobs for people who know how to use artificial intelligence. That’s been the trend with many new technologies throughout history.

At Lawrence Tech, Sobh said, plenty of research is under way on autonomous robots powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning, including an autonomous snowblower. He called artificial intelligence “the new calculator,” saying that when calculators first became ubiquitous in the 1970s, many teachers weren’t fans, saying that by using calculators, students would never actually learn math. That certainly has not turned out to be the case.

Sobh’s comments came at a meeting of the Detroit Economic Club attended by about 400 people at Ford Field, the home of the Detroit Lions. The event also was billed as a graduation ceremony for more than 100 high school students who participated in the Detroit Economic Club Career Readiness Academy. Appearing with Sobh on the panel were Robert Riney, president and CEO of Henry Ford Health, and Ray Scott, president and CEO of the Southfield auto supplier Lear Corp. Steve Grigorian, DEC president and CEO, served as moderator.

Riney said he was excited about robots and artificial intelligence in healthcare because he expects that tech to free health care workers from drudge work like checking vital signs. Instead, they can concentrate on higher level patient care. “This is a very human business,” he said, and AI will help health care professionals spend more time with patients and families, and less time on computers. It’ll also help doctors identify rare diseases that might be outside their sphere of knowledge based on observed symptoms. And, he added: “We have to have the muscle memory that comes from solving problems…AI needs to be a great supplement (to that), but not a replacement.”

And Scott said he was excited about the future of tech in manufacturing due to the opportunity of greater precision and higher quality. But he said industry would always need people—people that
are passionate, empathetic, and can work in teams. And right now, he said, the United States has 500,000 open jobs in manufacturing.

Sobh also predicted, as he has at several other venues, that the need for manual labor would disappear “within the next 30 years, probably sooner,” in favor of manual labor tasks being accomplished more efficiently and at less cost by intelligent robots
As for those killer robots? Sobh explained that he was mostly joking, but that “coupling autonomy with deadly power is a little scary, and has to be taken seriously.”

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