Editorial: What future will Concord choose?

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Concord, New Hampshire, was once the frontier. A granite obelisk near Concord Hospital commemorates the 1746 massacre of five Concord-area men by Native Americans. Today, the city and its environs are on the frontier again.

On one side lies a utopia of sorts – economic prosperity, easy living and social harmony. On the other, a potential dystopia of joblessness, cultural stagnation, envy and anger. How the city and its institutions respond to the forces described in two recent articles could determine what the future holds.

In 1956, Dartmouth College mathematics professor John McCarthy called researchers together to discuss the future of what he called “artificial intelligence.” It was the first use of the now ubiquitous term.

The 100 or so conferees considered whether computers, with their ability to rapidly analyze vast quantities of information and then act on it, will create or eliminate jobs, how “AI” could speed technological process and what changes might be in store for society. The conferees could only guess.

Today, the elimination of jobs by robots, and the ease of keeping in touch with friends, searching for information and conducting business at a distance are obvious. But the ones outlined by venture capitalist and former Google and Microsoft executive Kai-Fu Lee, writing in the New York Times last week, may not be.

Lee says the impact of artificial intelligence will dwarf those of all past technological advances, including electricity and the industrial revolution.

Artificial intelligence will eliminate millions of jobs without necessarily creating new ones. The gap between the world’s haves and have-nots will widen enormously unless income is redistributed from those who have almost all of it to those who have little or none of it.

The United States and China are the world’s leaders in artificial intelligence. Because talent attracts talent, nations and industries that aren’t already well on their way to an “AI” future will never catch up, Lee predicts. Traditional banking and Wall Street trading, he says, will soon go the way of camera film.

The second article in this “what’s the future hold” vision appeared in the online magazine “Politico.” Its author is urban studies professor Richard Florida, author of the best-seller The Rise of the Creative Class.

Florida’s article outlines the ideas in his latest book, The New Urban Crisis. His ideas are controversial.

We agree, for example, that America’s “knowledge hubs” on the east and west coasts, and a few outposts in between, are driving the economy and that politically, they’re blue. We disagree with Florida’s proposed response to the nation’s partisan divide.

Just 20 of the nation’s major metropolitan areas account for about half of the country’s gross domestic product. Eighteen of those are so-called sanctuary cities that President Donald Trump has promised to punish for protecting undocumented residents. Their embrace of artificial intelligence, and supply of workers capable of guiding it, will increase. Red America’s share of the pie will shrink; political alienation will grow.

The Boston to Washington metro area, which like other major metros boasts ample public transportation, high-speed Internet service and other advantages, will continue to be economic winners and the rest will stagnate, Florida predicts.

Though some might argue the point, Concord forms the northern margin of that corridor. The city has some of the requisite assets of a metro, including a law school that focuses on intellectual property and a two-year college that offers grounding in computing, coding and artificial intelligence. But it sorely needs better public transportation, easy connections to Boston and beyond, faster Internet service and more housing.

The future may not be the one Lee and Florida describe, but Concord would be smart to act as if it will.