A Grim Picture of an AI Future

By Kai-Fu Lee

Scanning the economic horizon, artificial intelligence promises to produce wealth on a scale never before seen in human history—something that should be a cause for celebration.

But if left to its own devices, AI will also produce a global distribution of wealth that is not just more unequal but hopelessly so. AI-poor countries will find themselves unable to get a grip on the ladder of economic development, relegated to permanent subservient status. AI-rich countries will amass great wealth but also witness the widespread monopolization of the economy and a bifurcated labor market divided into economic castes.

Make no mistake: this is not just the normal churn of capitalism’s creative destruction, a process that has previously always helped lead to a new equilibrium of more jobs, higher wages, and a better quality of life for all. The free market is supposed to be self-correcting, but these self- correcting mechanisms break down in an economy driven by artificial intelligence. Low-cost labor provides no edge over machines, and data-driven monopolies are forever self-reinforcing.

These forces are combining to create a unique historical phenomenon, one that will shake the foundations of our labor markets, economies, and societies. Even if the most dire predictions of jobs losses don’t fully materialize, the social impact of wrenching inequality could be just as traumatic. We may never build the folding cities of Hao Jingfang’s science fiction, but AI risks creating a twenty-first-century caste system, one that divides the population into the AI elite and what historian Yuval N. Harari has crudely called the “useless class,” people who can never generate enough economic value to support themselves. Even worse, recent history has shown us just how fragile our political institutions and social fabric can be in the face of intractable inequality. I fear that recent upheavals are just a dry run for the disruptions to come in the age of AI.

Taking It Personally: The Coming Crisis of Meaning

The resulting turmoil will take on political, economic, and social dimensions, but it will also be intensely personal. In the centuries since the Industrial Revolution, we have increasingly come to see our work not just as a means for survival but as a source of personal pride, identity, and real- life meaning. Asked to introduce ourselves or others in a social setting, a job is often the first thing we mention. It fills our days and provides a sense of routine and a source of human connections. A regular paycheck has become a way not just of rewarding labor but also of signaling to people that one is a valued member of society, a contributor to a common project.

Severing these ties—or forcing people into downwardly mobile careers—will damage so much more than just our financial lives. It will constitute a direct assault on our sense of identity and purpose. Speaking to the New York Times in 2014, laid-off electrician Frank Walsh described the psychological toll of intractable unemployment.

“I lost my sense of worth, you know what I mean?” Walsh observed. “Somebody asks you ‘What do you do?’ and I would say, ‘I’m an electrician.’ But now I say nothing. I’m not an electrician anymore.”

That loss of meaning and purpose has very real and serious consequences. Rates of depression triple among those unemployed for six months, and people looking for work are twice as likely to kill themselves as the gainfully employed. Alcohol use and opioid overdoses both rise alongside unemployment rates, with some scholars attributing rising mortality rates among uneducated white Americans to declining economic outcomes, a phenomenon they call “deaths of despair.”

The psychological damage of AI-induced unemployment will cut even deeper. People will face the prospect of not just being temporarily out of work but of being permanently excluded from the functioning of the economy. They will watch as algorithms and robots easily outperform them at tasks and skills they spent their whole lives mastering. It will lead to a crushing feeling of futility, a sense of having become obsolete in one’s own skin.

The winners of this AI economy will marvel at the awesome power of these machines. But the rest of humankind will be left to grapple with a far deeper question: when machines can do everything that we can, what does it mean to be human?

That’s a question that I found myself grappling with in the depths of my own personal crisis of mortality and meaning. That crisis brought me to a very dark place, one that pushed my body to the limit and challenged my deepest-held assumptions about what matters in life. But it was that process—and that pain—that opened my eyes to an alternate ending to the story of human beings and artificial intelligence.

Posted by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee on May 09, 2019 in All Posts AI and You In the Media

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