How AI could spur a crisis of meaning

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Following on from last week’s Swamp Note which covered Apec and the growing monopoly power over artificial intelligence by Big Tech and the Chinese state, I want to consider the politics of AI. Or, more specifically, what it could mean for politics if generative AI disrupts as many jobs as it seems that it might over the next few years.

Consider that current politics in the developed world — from the rise of Donald Trump to the growth of far right and far left politics in Europe — stem in large part from disruptions to the industrial workforce due to technology and globalisation. The hollowing out of manufacturing work led to more populist and fractious politics, as countries tried (and often failed) to balance the needs of the global marketplace with those of voters.

Now consider that this past summer, the OECD warned that white-collar, skilled labour representing about a third of the workforce in the US and other rich countries is most at risk from disruption by AI. We are already seeing this happen in office work — with women and Asians particularly at risk since they hold a disproportionate amount of roles in question. As our colleague John Burn-Murdoch has charted, online freelancers are especially vulnerable.

So, what happens when you add more than three times as many workers, in new subgroups, to the cauldron of angry white men that have seen their jobs automated or outsourced in recent decades? Nothing good. I’m always struck when CEOs like Elon Musk proclaim that we are headed towards a world without work as if this is a good thing. As academics like Angus Deaton and Anne Case have laid out for some time now, a world without work very often leads to “deaths of despair,” broken families, and all sorts of social and political ills.

Now, to be fair, Goldman Sachs has estimated that the productivity impact of AI could double the recent rate — mirroring the impact of the PC revolution. This would lead to major growth which could, if widely shared, do everything from cut child poverty to reduce our burgeoning deficit. 

But that’s only if it’s shared. And the historical trend lines for technology aren’t good in that sense — technology often widens wealth disparities before labour movements and government regulation equalise things. (Think about the turn of the 20th century, up until the 1930s). But the depth and breadth of AI disruption may well cause unprecedented levels of global labour displacement and political unrest.

I am getting more and more worried that this is where we may be heading. Consider this new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, which analyses why AI will be as transformative as the industrial revolution. It also predicts, however, that there is a very good chance that it lowers the labour share radically, even pushing it to zero, in lieu of policies that prevent this (the wonderful Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson make similar points, and lay out the history of such tech transformation in their book Power and Progress.

No wonder the tech oligarchs of our new gilded era are trying to get off the planet — they know the pitchforks will be coming (for more on that topic, read Jonathan Taplin’s latest book, The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars, and Crypto).

We can’t educate ourselves out of this problem fast enough (or perhaps at all). We also can’t count on universal basic income to fix everything, no matter how generous it could be, because people simply need work to function (as Freud said, it’s all about work and love). Economists and political scientists have been pondering the existential risks of AI — from nuclear war to a pandemic — for years. But I wonder if the real existential crisis isn’t a massive crisis of meaning, and the resulting politics of despair, as work is displaced faster than we can fix the problem.

Richard, I’m curious how folks in the Valley think about this?

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Richard Waters responds

You know how it is in Silicon Valley — everyone always has a solution and things are always glass half-full. But on this issue, even the people who claim to have the answers usually seem to be having a hard job convincing themselves.

The conversation here usually leads in three directions. The first is that tech will create new types of work we can’t even imagine yet. For a few years, everyone pointed to mobile app developers as proof that this would always work: Before the iPhone, who would even have imagined that could be a job? With AI, the mythical new job everyone here talks about is prompt engineering, the dark art of drawing useful results out of systems like ChatGPT.

There are obvious problems with this line of thinking. Things may move too fast and there may not be time for all the new jobs to be created, let alone for all the retraining to be done. And just because this is how technology worked in the past doesn’t mean it will in the future. With AI, the new types of work might also get done by the machines. 

The second thing you hear is that we’re all too fixated on jobs and should think more about how we could use all that extra free time to create meaning in our lives in other ways. This conversation usually peters out quite quickly. All the high-achieving techies assume they’ll be the ones left with jobs.

The third favourite topic of conversation, as you suggest, is universal basic income. This is a wonkish idea that has all the hallmarks of a panacea — just the kind of thing techies love, since it shows off their grasp of the latest thinking and seems to present a sweeping solution that deals with the problem in one go. But the way it’s presented often feels a bit detached from reality.

My favourite example of this is Worldcoin, the startup backed by former OpenAI boss Sam Altman (who is now joining Microsoft). Worldcoin wants everyone on the planet to have their eyeballs scanned by one of its “orbs”, so that when the time comes to share out the wealth it will be easier to make sure we are each unique humans (as opposed to robots) and deserving of a slice of the pie. It’s a crackpot idea and the fact that they put the technology first shows exactly how people here often think.

That said, I think all three of these ideas point to something important. New types of work, new ways to find meaning beyond work and much greater redistribution of wealth will have to play a part if we’re going to avoid the kind of political cataclysm you’re afraid of. But yes, with the speed at which the technology is moving, I share your dread.

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This post was originally published on Financial Times

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