These days, when economists and researchers debate about what a world with an AI economy looks like, they tend to fall into two camps.
Famed geneticist and researcher, Ray Kurzweil, is in the utopia camp. He sees machines as being the supreme tool for humans to enhance our bodies and minds, allowing us to become smarter and live longer. Similarly, AI researcher Demis Hassabis sees AI as the tool that will allow us to finally cure disease and solve problems like global warming.
In the dystopia camp, there’s entrepreneur Elon Musk and physicist Stephen Hawking, who think AI’s potential represents a very serious threat to humanity. For example, an AI program could be asked to solve global warming and see wiping out humans as the best option.
Opinions differ among economists as well, and much of the debate has stemmed from a 2013 study by Oxford University, which found 47 percent of US jobs to be at risk over the next 20 years due to increasing automation.
Of course, most companies will be eager to cut costs and increase profits if they can automate certain tasks. And this brings us to an important difference in the reports that came after the 2013 Oxford study: Most of the automation that AI is currently capable of allows for certain tasks to be automated, but not entire jobs.
For example, an automated tax advisor could do certain tasks, like calculate tax returns and check for inconsistencies, but it can’t have nuanced conversations with clients.
With the difference between tasks and entire jobs in mind, more reports followed. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only 9 percent of US jobs were at risk due to automation. In a 2017 report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), 38 percent of US jobs were at risk, while McKinsey Global said that around 50 percent of tasks worldwide are “already automatable.”
This is quite a range, and it’s a big reason why economists remain divided on the issue. The author tends to agree with the PWC report while thinking that the actual number of displaced workers may even be higher.
This is because the reports didn’t take into consideration ground-up displacement, which will come from businesses like Smart Finance and Toutiao, which don’t employ any loan officers or editors. So these businesses won’t be adding automation and firing employees, rather they’ll displace loan officers and editors from the ground-up by not offering them a position in the first place.
In 2013, the author was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma. Up to this point, he was something of a workaholic, but that all changed. He realized that so much of the effort put into his career was meaningless now. Facing up to his own mortality, he now understood that being productive wasn’t what made him human – in fact, that was more like being a machine. What made him human was his relationships with his family, friends and those close to him.
Thanks to a course of chemotherapy, he’s currently in remission, but the experience changed how he envisioned AI and humans working in harmony.
The emergence of AI presents us with an amazing opportunity to hand over much of our unpleasant mechanical tasks to algorithms so that we can focus on the human aspect of our lives – interacting with one another, being part of a community and making the world a better place.
However, this would require a fundamental shift in the value we place on certain jobs. Currently, highly-paid jobs are usually ones that generate profit, and these are also the jobs that can often be carried out by AI. Meanwhile, jobs that can’t easily be automated, such as caregivers and personal aides are undervalued and underpaid.
Sure enough, this is a booming field in the US with 1.2 million home health aide and personal care jobs to be added within the next ten years. However, these jobs come with an average salary of around $20,000. If we can raise that salary while letting AI generate profit in the corporate sector, we could simultaneously ease the job displacement issue and better care for our communities.
There are a lot of ideas for how to cope with displaced workers, like taxing the wealthiest people in order to issue a universal basic income, which would see that everyone received enough money to get by. And while some form of a basic income may be necessary, relying solely on this solution would be a shame. Doing so would be avoiding the opportunity to enact real social change that could benefit the entire world by creating human-centered labor markets not as driven by profit.
Instead of focusing entirely on money, maybe we should be more like Bhutan, which looks at “Gross National Happiness” as the real sign of progress.
China is poised to become an AI superpower in the AI economy that is expected to be worth $15.7 trillion worldwide. Thanks to a government that is eager to help push new tech businesses forward, a robust manufacturing hub, and a goldmine of personalized data at their fingertips, China has what it needs to start making amazing AI products and applications.
While some worry that an AI economy will result in devastating job losses, if we shift our values toward rewarding human-to-human jobs such as caregiving and community-based work, we may emerge as an even better society and improve the world we live in. Food for thought?
Check out my related post: Are we ready to trust Artificial Intelligence?