Has it turned to people vs tech? – Part 2

AI has long been a boogie man of science fiction stories and economic doomsayers alike, leading to fears of machines taking over the world – or at least taking over everyone’s jobs.

These fears may be overblown, since they assume a level of AI that’s much more advanced than is likely to develop in the next 50 to 100 years. However, there’s a more realistic fear to have in the meantime: AI will reduce the number of people employed in a large swath of jobs – those involving routine tasks.

AI is already good at performing these tasks. It’s not so good at dealing with unpredictable situations, especially if they require creative thought or sensorimotor skills. For example, driving on a highway is a pretty routine task that AI can handle. Truck drivers are therefore likely to be replaced by AI. Being a machine learning specialist or a gardener, in contrast, involves doing creative, non-routine and sensorimotor-heavy tasks that AI can’t handle for the foreseeable future. These workers will be safe.

Thus, routine jobs will be eliminated, leaving mostly non-routine jobs behind. The problem with this is that non-routine jobs tend to be either very well paid (think Google employee) or very poorly paid (think delivery cyclist). The in-between, routine jobs tend to be those of the middle class – paralegals, accountants and radiologists, for example. With these jobs eliminated, the result will be a barbell-like economy with high-end, non-routine jobs on one end and low-end, non-routine jobs on the other.

The gulf between the post-AI haves and have-nots will then grow even worse. As AI becomes increasingly important to the economy, AI specialists will be in demand and therefore better paid. Meanwhile, the laid-off workers from the routine jobs will compete for the low-end, non-routine jobs, putting a downward pressure on their wages.

Democracy will suffer from the resulting inequality and destruction of the middle class, as these developments will deepen the divisions that are already beginning to tear it apart. That’s because inequality literally separates people – dividing the rich into one set of lives, jobs and neighborhoods and the poor into another. Meanwhile, the more the economy resembles a barbell, the more problems arise, such as a shrinking tax base and higher levels of crime, depression and addiction, which further exacerbate the social divisions.

To turn an old saying upside down, as the poor get poorer, the rich get richer. The flipside of AI-powered technology taking over large swaths of the economy, eliminating many jobs, eviscerating the middle class and increasing inequality is that the companies pushing that technology are also going to become increasingly rich and powerful. Indeed, tech companies have an inherent tendency to become all-powerful monopolies. The very nature of their economic activity paves the way for them to achieve exponential growth that crowds out their competitors.

There are two factors behind this. The first involves a phenomenon called the network effect. Essentially, if you’re a company providing a service that connects people into a network, your service becomes more desirable each time you connect another person to it. This entices more people to join it, which makes it even more desirable, which leads to even more people joining it, etc. For example, the more passengers that join Uber, the more drivers it attracts, so that Uber can provide better service – which leads to even more passengers joining Uber, and so on.

The second factor involves the low-cost and high-speed at which tech companies can scale up their networks. For instance, it takes barely any time or money for Airbnb to add a new host to its network of lodgings, whereas it takes a lot of time and money for a hotel company to construct a new building.

Now, the factors leading to the creation of tech monopolies may be novel, but monopolies themselves are nothing new. Like monopolies of the past, tech companies are using their power to buy influence with politicians. However, compared to monopolies of the past, tech companies can command an unprecedented amount of influence, for two reasons.

First, political parties are uniquely dependent on tech companies, given how much they need digital platforms to reach potential voters. Second, owning those platforms gives tech companies unprecedented power to influence public debate and opinion. Indeed, they’re already starting to flex their muscles. For example, in opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2012, Google added a link to a petition on its front page, which led to millions of signatures and helped kill the bill.

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the term “democracy?” For many people, it would probably be “freedom.” After all, individual liberty is an undeniably vital component of democracy.

However, an equally vital component is the opposite of freedom: state coercion. To enforce laws that express the will of the people, the government must have a system of coercion in place to be able to do things like make people pay taxes. And to justify and organize this system, the state needs to control information like taxation records.

However, the rise of a movement called crypto-anarchy is threatening the government’s ability to control information and thus its authority to coerce its citizens. What is crypto-anarchy? The short answer is that it’s a movement that seeks to undermine the authority of the state through encryption, which allows people to communicate, store and retrieve information beyond the reach of the government.

Bitcoin, in turn, is just one example of blockchain technology, which stores information in an immense, disbursed and tamper-proof database. In the case of Bitcoin, independent records of each transaction are kept by thousands of computers linked together into a decentralized network. You can’t delete or edit one record without deleting or editing them all, which is virtually impossible.

Further applications of this technology are already proliferating and will continue to spread, resulting in blockchain-based marketplaces and social media platforms that are impervious to government surveillance and interference. These marketplaces will allow the free flow of illegal products like drugs, personal data and child pornography.

Meanwhile, social media platforms enable users to spread hate speech, illegal images and terrorist propaganda. Thus, the government would be powerless to remove from the blockchain network or even trace, let alone prosecute the users behind them.

The result? The government’s laws – and by extension, the government itself – will become increasingly toothless, as malefactors become able to break them with impunity.

Digital technology has brought undeniable benefits to humanity, but it also poses equally undeniable challenges to democracy. These challenges stem from certain tendencies of technologically driven social changes that are unfolding before our eyes – tendencies that are already eroding the essential pillars of democracy. If left unchecked, these pillars may eventually crumble, leaving a dystopian or totalitarian state in the rubble.  Fortunately, there are steps that governments can take to sync up with the internet era and thereby withstand the winds of change. There are also steps that individuals can take to aid these renovation efforts in their personal lives.

Check out my related post: What is Superintelligence? – Part 1

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