AI gods and the rest of us

I was reading Mark Rendle’s Futurology post, looking at the economics of plenty and how that changes our relationship with technology, and it reminded me of a train of thought I had around the future of AI.

It started with a series by the BBC, and the question : Will a robot take your job? which inevitably led me to thinking about the Luddites and sabotage, as skilled workers saw their jobs being lost to technology, at the same time as mass production and specialism, as described in the Wealth of Nations, lowered prices and raised living standards.

In some ways, AI is in a similar position, although the jobs being lost are more and more highly skilled, leaving people either climbing up the skill chain chased by the machines, or sidestepping the machines into, say, the service industries where customers prefer the human touch. But there’s only so much space left for human when cheap, smart machines start proliferating. They don’t need to be smarter than us, just cheaper. At it’s logical conclusion, the number of jobs left for humans could easily become less than the number of people available to work. ( Artificial intelligence: ‘Homo sapiens will be split into a handful of gods and the rest of us’ | Business | The Guardian)

There’s a lot of possibilities for how this will play out, and I’ll explore some of the other options in a later post, but in the spirit of Star Trek and Mark’s post, let’s assume that the cheaper, better machines trajectory lowers the poverty line enough, and humans are altruistic enough, that actually everyone can be fed, watered and connected without the need to sell labour to pay for it. And the other technology Mark mentions, such as 3d printing, will be key to that. There’s also political changes that will help, such as Finland’s proposal to guarantee everyone an income, which is also supported by politicians in the Netherlands and the UK’s Green Parties.

On the consumer front, digital goods are moving to cheap, and sometimes free, subscriptions as Amazon, Google, Apple and others compete, although it’s not clear whether the original creators are supported adequately by these services.

I’m not convinced that it’s the end of money. As a vehicle for trade, especially as people specialise in their line of work, as discussed by Adam Smith, money is a useful abstract. You can choose to trade your work for a cat, whereas I can choose to trade it for musical instruments.

The question isn’t about the end of money, it’s about whether we can or want to separate labour from money, and money from status. When the Fundamentals of labour are subsumed by machines and status is a cheap subscription away, whether you are a consumer or a producer, is money still a means to itself? Can it still buy power and influence? Can it be used to control supply? Unfortunately, I fear it will, and whilst that lasts, the people who think in code, and the personal services industry will hold on, but everyone else will watch, and maybe fight, as the machines come after their jobs.


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