Optimizing logistics, detecting fraud, composing art, conducting research, providing translations: intelligent machine systems are transforming our lives for the better. As these systems become more capable, our world becomes more efficient and consequently richer.
Tech giants such as Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft – as well as individuals like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk – believe that now is the right time to talk about the nearly boundless landscape of artificial intelligence. In many ways, this is just as much a new frontier for ethics and risk assessment as it is for emerging technology. So which issues and conversations keep AI experts up at night?
1. Unemployment. What happens after the end of jobs?
The hierarchy of labour is concerned primarily with automation. As we’ve invented ways to automate jobs, we could create room for people to assume more complex roles, moving from the physical work that dominated the pre-industrial globe to the cognitive labour that characterizes strategic and administrative work in our globalized society.
Look at trucking: it currently employs millions of individuals in the United States alone. What will happen to them if the self-driving trucks promised by Tesla’s Elon Musk become widely available in the next decade? But on the other hand, if we consider the lower risk of accidents, self-driving trucks seem like an ethical choice. The same scenario could happen to office workers, as well as to the majority of the workforce in developed countries.
This is where we come to the question of how we are going to spend our time. Most people still rely on selling their time to have enough income to sustain themselves and their families. We can only hope that this opportunity will enable people to find meaning in non-labour activities, such as caring for their families, engaging with their communities and learning new ways to contribute to human society.
If we succeed with the transition, one day we might look back and think that it was barbaric that human beings were required to sell the majority of their waking time just to be able to live.
2. Inequality. How do we distribute the wealth created by machines?
Our economic system is based on compensation for contribution to the economy, often assessed using an hourly wage. The majority of companies are still dependent on hourly work when it comes to products and services. But by using artificial intelligence, a company can drastically cut down on relying on the human workforce, and this means that revenues will go to fewer people. Consequently, individuals who have ownership in AI-driven companies will make all the money.
We are already seeing a widening wealth gap, where start-up founders take home a large portion of the economic surplus they create. In 2014, roughly the same revenues were generated by the three biggest companies in Detroit and the three biggest companies in Silicon Valley … only in Silicon Valley there were 10 times fewer employees.
If we’re truly imagining a post-work society, how do we structure a fair post-labour economy?