The Big Debate: Will AI sink or save us?


Experts unpack the promise and fears that come with technology, and why CFOs should embrace it.

The lively debate among author and UJ professor of practice Steven Sidley, BDO South Africa director of business development Pat Mokgatle, and CFO South Africa MD Joël Roerig about whether super-intelligent machines will take over the world was a session that the top 100 finance executives attending CFO Day were extremely eager to attend.

No longer a sceptic

Steven has been vocal about sharing thoughts from leading experts in the field warning that there is a great risk that machine learning will mark the end of humanity. His research has shown that 50 percent of prominent thinkers in the field believe that there is a better than 10 percent possibility that humanity is on its way to non-existence under super intelligent AI.

He quoted AI researcher and writer Eliezer Yudkowsky, saying: “The most likely result of building a superhumanly smart AI, under anything remotely like the current circumstances, is that literally everyone on Earth will die. Not as in ‘maybe possibly some remote chance,’ but as in ‘that is the obvious thing that would happen.’ … If somebody builds a too-powerful AI, under present conditions, I expect that every single member of the human species and all biological life on Earth dies shortly thereafter.”

However, he admitted that, after reading a blog post from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen about the misguided doomsday thinking around super intelligent AI and hearing the many insights from leaders who have embraced technology throughout the day, his thinking may be thawing.

“It is rubbish to think that super computers will create a dystopian science fiction future where humans are under its control, because AI was created by people and can just as easily be stopped by them.”

His second point was that AI will not take jobs, but rather create more employment opportunities – like all the technological advancements in the past 500 years.

Trust in humans

Pat said that, while there is an element of fear of the unknown, he places his trust in “perfect but imperfect humans” – the creators of the technology and algorithms. He added that he still holds trust in the ability of humans to develop machines for “betterness, to grow our humanity”.

While we can’t deny that there will be bad actors who will create AI for nefarious purposes, Pat believes that there will also be good actors who will create policies and systems to combat those.
He emphasised that technology needs to be embraced or “we will all be left behind” – that’s the real doomsday message.

Pat said that predictive analytics and continuous audits are vital for CFOs to “understand what is happening in a business before it is too late”. These tools can be used to detect inaccuracies, prevent the corporate failures seen in South Africa, and will also make sure that the country’s business environment can compete on international levels.

Steven agreed that technology needs to be embraced. But with the volume of information and tools available, CFOs need to hire an AI strategist who understands the business value of what the solutions need to be able to achieve.

Because as Pat so aptly puts it, nobody wants to land up like Nokia.

CFO Day was made possible by principal partner Workday, executive partner BDO, and associate partners Allan GrayCaseware AfricaCircitCoupaSoluGrowth and Transparent.

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