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Obama on AI, Star Trek and the Future


If U.S. President Barack Obama were a character in Star Trek, he would surely be Spock. Forget for a moment a faint physical resemblance.

Like Spock, he is cool under pressure, and his path to the best choices is always rational. More often than not, those decisions are also the most beneficial ones for society at large, both in the fictional Space Federation and in the Obama administration. Yet life, rightly, placed him in the role of Captain Kirk, one endowed with the sharp mind of his second in command.

And more importantly, Obama is a Trekkie, just like us at Verb. Not only is he a once-in-a-generation president for the breadth of his intellectual curiosity and his unique blend of leadership and charisma. He has a vision about the future for the country he leads, and the world.

All this came through in the interview Scott Dadich did for Wired. Obama had also expressed an interest in MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito in taking part in the interview.

A non-intrusive journalist, Dadich mostly let the conversation play out between Obama and Ito. The U.S. President dismissed concerns that machines are about to take over the world. That is generalized artificial intelligence, and for the moment it is a far-off prospect. And he is confident about the benefits of specialized AI, which is driving progress in medicine, transportation and other fields.

Yet he is aware of the challenges ahead for low-skilled workers. Some jobs may very well disappear and new opportunities to replace them may not emerge. Still, a good reader of history as he is, Obama knows that societies have eventually evolved to absorb new technologies, albeit never one that mimics human ability to learn and evolve.

But Ito is also worried about the nerds he works with at MIT, those who are more at ease with computers and think they will eventually be better at running the world. They think humans have made a mess of it, Ito thinks.

And Obama answered bringing up the example of Star Trek. For he is also a good science fiction reader (or TV watcher), too. As he says about the fabled series:

“What made the show lasting was it wasn’t actu­ally about technology. It was about values and relationships… Star Trek, like any good story, says that we’re all complicated… There’s a certain faith in rationality, tempered by some humility. Which is true of the best art and true of the best science. The sense that we possess these incredible minds that we should use, and we’re still just scratching the surface, but we shouldn’t get too cocky. We should remind ourselves that there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know.”

And very importantly, unlike Spock, Obama has emotions, and laughs too.

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