Machines are not the threat
I’ve just read a very good report in Wired on the recent conference in Asilomar on the future of work and the effects of technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics, with a headline that leaves no doubt about the most important aspect of the issue: “The AI threat isn’t Skynet: It’s the end of the middle class”.
Indeed: while the popular imagination is obsessed with technological singularity and machines that will one day acquire consciousness and rebel against mankind, an idea that fails to distinguish between intelligence and consciousness and belongs in the realm of science fiction, the real danger to civilization comes from the progressive erosion of the middle classes.
A tangible and possibly immediate problem, and one whose consequences we are already beginning to see in the politics of a country as traditionally unrevolutionary as the United States, which is faced with another still hypothetical and theoretical problem some way down the road. The rise of populism reflects the futile search for meaning through the models of the past, the idea that lost wealth can be regenerated by doing things like we did them before, and embodying the imaginary enemy as immigration or technology.
The evidence shows that job losses due to the progress of artificial intelligence and robotics are happening faster than expected: more and more posts are threatened by substitution processes, and hoping to win those positions back is absurd. And we’re not just talking about manual or repetitive work here, but practically any human activity.
When technology renders an activity such as driving, working in a factory or a stock market trader, there is no going back: if a company decides not to adopt that technology to try to preserve the jobs, then its competitors will. If a Chinese factory replaces 90% of its workers with robots and thereby increases output by 250% while reducing defects by 80%, the idea of competing with it by staying out of that technology defies any kind of common sense.
Keeping people working on jobs that a machine is capable of doing better and faster goes contrary to the laws of the economic system we have generated. The evolution of technology has become the biggest factor in economic deflation ever known: while central banks try to inject money into the economy to maintain its dynamism, technology gives us better products that renders stuff we had acquired before obsolete and worthless, and that in turn depreciate ever more quickly. The smartphone in our pocket means people have stopped buying cameras, diaries, watches, computers, GPS devices, music players and countless other products that before would have cost several several thousand euros to buy separately. And yet a couple of years after its acquisition, the value of that same smartphone has depreciated to virtually nothing. This deflationary trend is absolutely unstoppable because it is driven by an unstoppable technological progress whose effects nobody has any experience of managing.
The effects of this deflation have so far been a polarization of society and a growing concentration of wealth into fewer hands. The middle class see their jobs being replaced by machines and their identification in more and more industries and occupations disappearing, while the threat of losing their jobs becomes an increasingly serious concern. As Andrew McAfee, co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy says,
“If current trends continue, people are going to rise up well before the machines do”
The cause of the revolution may be technological in origin, but the revolution itself will be purely economic: people unable to find their place in a society subject to increasingly rapid deflation and in which jobs are progressively occupied by machines, leading to a redefinition of the idea of work that many will not be able to adapt to. It is also possible that these changes will also generate other types of work, but for the moment, that process does not seem to be happening quickly enough for the growing number of people losing their jobs. The miner no longer needed underground in an environment where autonomous robots work round the clock is unlikely to retrain as a software developer. Change does not look back, it does not care about the people whose jobs are rendered obsolete and can only offer partial solutions based on insufficient subsidies. Meanwhile, the debate about the need, viability or impact of universal basic income continues to divide economists.
In short, the biggest threat to civilization comes not from machines, but from people themselves.
(En español, aquí)