Is AI good for humanity? Alibaba’s Ma, Google’s Pichai differ at Davos

The growing influence of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) drew mixed reactions from the bosses of tech giants at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

Alibaba founder Jack Ma was quoted by Indo-Asian News Service as saying that AI can pose a threat to human beings as it can replace several jobs and societal functions in the future.

"I think AI should support human beings. Technology should always do something that enables people, not disables people," Ma was quoted as saying. "But we [tech companies] have the responsibility to have a good heart, and do something good."

Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai had a different take.

"AI is probably the most important thing humanity has ever worked on. I think of it as something more profound than electricity or fire," Pichai said during his Davos address on frontier technology.

The Indian-born Pichai believes that AI can have a positive impact, especially in education and renewable energy.

He did acknowledge, however, the concerns about AI's negative implications such as job cuts.

"I think a lot of things will play out in more positive ways than people think. But the risks are important," Pichai was quoted as saying. "Any time you work with technology, you need to learn to harness the benefits while minimising the downsides."

The Google CEO believes that this concern can be addressed by not using technologies such as AI for nefarious purposes. He said that the best way forward was to ensure that advanced technology remains demilitarised.

Ma and Pichai's views have furthered the debate among tech titans on the influence of AI.

Ma struck a similar tone to Tesla chief Elon Musk, who had sparked a debate in 2014 when he had said that the human race could be doomed if machines became smarter.

Last year, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said that naysayers "try to drum up these doomsday scenarios", adding that it was "pretty irresponsible."

In response, Musk had called Zuckerberg's understanding of AI "limited".

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