A Nao robot leans against a goal post in a laboratory at the Leipzig University of Applied Sciences (HTWK) after a training match. Alamy Stock Photo

Column 'Innovation should be encouraged, but not to just benefit oligarchic trillionaires'

One of the strange things about our collective reaction to AI is that it is so overwhelmingly framed in the negative, writes economist Ciarán Casey as he looks to the bright side.

IN MAY, 350 tech experts issued a one-sentence warning on the threat posed by
Artificial Intelligence: ‘Mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I. should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks, such as pandemics and nuclear war’.

Industry leaders pushing for more state regulation is a rarity, and should encourage us to take these threats seriously.

Even putting aside the apocalyptic warnings, the political economy of AI and robotics will require a major revamp of society even in a best-case scenario.

In one sense, we are talking about a future still years away. In another, it is just an acceleration of a process that has been underway for centuries: technological change displacing labour.

Tech optimists argue that people have worried about machines taking their jobs for generations, but that workers have been adaptable enough to find new professions.

Pessimists counter that AI is a game-changer, that jobs will be replaced so quickly that labour will have no time to catch up, leaving many in ‘a world without work’.

If the pessimists are right, one of the foundations of our economic system will no longer be fit for purpose.

The two most fundamental economic problems are how best to produce resources and how best to distribute them. A market system, in theory at least, will allocate most resources to those who produce the most. Someone who builds a factory making popular cars will do far better than someone writing books nobody wants to read.

There are many imperfections, but there is a logic to it and the tacit social agreement is that almost everyone is better off than they would be under a different system.

If AI is as transformative as predicted, then this system will just stop working.

People’s incomes will have to be decoupled from their production for them to survive.

Fortunately, we have a great solution for this in the form of universal basic income: everyone is given a regular payment regardless of whether they work or not.

While this has attracted a lot of international attention in recent years, it has a surprisingly long history in Ireland.

Campaigners successfully put it on the political agenda in the 1980s and 1990s. In both instances, it was deemed far too expensive to be feasible. But in a world where machines can be vastly more productive than humans, it is an excellent solution.

Where it gets more troubling is at the opposite end of the income scale: the people who own the technology. If the internet has created billionaires, one can only imagine what fully automated factories, farms, and mines will do.

Again, the tacit agreement in society has been to accept a certain degree of inequality if it incentivises some individuals to be highly productive. The problem is that too much inequality brings a host of other problems, particularly disproportionate control over politics and the media.

AI will likely magnify this unless we do something about it, to the point that it will endanger much of the fabric of society. One can wager that this is not the problem that tech leaders were driving at in their letter.

So, what to do? If the technologies around the corner can essentially solve the problem of producing enough for everyone to live comfortably, then the costs of allowing massive inequality will strongly outweigh the benefits.

Innovation should always be encouraged, but not to the exclusive benefit of a small group of oligarchic trillionaires. At some point, the automated factories and farms and mines will have to be harnessed for the benefit of society.

In a very unexpected twist, the free market evangelists of Silicon Valley have accidentally made the strongest imaginable case for socialism.

One of the strange things about our collective reaction to AI is that it is so overwhelmingly framed in the negative.

If we all get a reasonable income and are no longer obliged to work for it, where is the problem?

There is surprisingly good evidence that work makes people much happier than they think. Asked to report their moods at random intervals, people are far more lethargic and unhappy watching TV.

Work also provides people with social networks and identities. If there ends up being less of it to do, then we will have to rely far more heavily on things like sports clubs and volunteering for charities.

Inconveniently, one of the classic books on American society – Bowling Alone – found that these types of formalised activities have been on the wane for decades.

Many of us will need to reassess what we want and value.

While this may be uncomfortable, it will also be humanising. Friedrich Nietzche wrote a passage that has stuck with me for the 20 years since I first read it:

“Fundamentally, one now feels at the sight of work – one always means by work that hard industriousness from early till late – that such work is the best policeman, that it keeps everyone in bounds and can mightily hinder the development of reason, covetousness, desire for independence. For it uses up an extraordinary amount of nervous energy, which is thus denied to reflection, brooding, dreaming, worrying, loving, hating; it sets a small goal always in sight and guarantees easy and regular satisfactions.”

If all this social and psychological change seems daunting, pity the poor billionaires.

John Maynard Keynes wrote a superb essay on the ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ in 1930. It is still one of the most profound pieces on the implications of technology for society today, and hopefully tech-driven abundance will ultimately prove him right:

“We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value.

“The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

“All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.”

Ciarán Casey is an economics lecturer at the University of Limerick. He is author of ‘The Irish Department of Finance, 1959-1999′ (IPA, 2022) and ‘Policy Failures and the Irish Economic Crisis’ (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).  

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