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An Open Letter on Artificial Intelligence
An open conversation with Robert Urbaschek.
This is the first letter in a multi-part series between myself and, the author of This is something I’ve had on the edge of my mind for a while, so I was excited to get my thoughts down on paper into a fully formed argument.
What follows is my response to Robert’s question, which he will read and respond to in kind. I’ll cross-post Robert’s response here, but if you appreciate what he has to say I suggest you go subscribe to Critical Consent.
Like any technological advancement, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will bear winners and losers. It will improve some aspects of our society but at great cost to the humans who used to fulfill those jobs. Such has been the case with every innovation, from the cotton loom to the computer. But where AI differs from previous inventions is that it could, in theory, eliminate the need for any human involvement. After all, the loom and the computer are tools, still requiring an intelligent human operator. As the name says, artificial intelligence could supplant humans altogether, throwing millions out of work and greatly disrupting society. With such a novel threat, a novel response will be needed.
I should note, that the “AI” available today is not capable of either high-level disruption or helpful production. Many algorithms are labeled “AI” simply because it catches the eyes of investors, and the ever-famous ChatGPT is really just a plagiarism tool. But while they may not yet be threatening the livelihood of civilization, the technology is advancing at a rapid pace. I don’t think we’ll see mass unemployment caused by AI immediately, but if current trends continue, such hardship will be inevitable.
Under the current socio-economic model of capitalism, in which businesses are owned by private individuals looking to profit, 99% of the help AI provides society will be for the betterment of the upper class. Movie studios will replace writers with script-writing bots, Verizon will fire their customer support staff and “hire” chatbots, and any other job that can be done by artificial intelligence will soon become the responsibility of a robot. The reason for this is simple: the up-front costs of research and development for AI will be much cheaper than the wages paid to workers over their lifespans. This is evident in the ongoing Hollywood strikes and is one of the reasons writers and actors want protections against AI in their contracts.
Obviously, this will harm the working class, causing many to be fired and become chronically unemployed. While those directly replaced by AI will be the most harmed, they won’t be the only ones. When auto manufacturers offshored out of Detroit, not only were the workers devastated by lost jobs, but the surrounding economy of local shops and businesses no longer had a customer base. Within years of mass firings, Detroit was declared insolvent. Additionally, when workers are unemployed the United States as a whole takes a hit. The government loses out on lost tax revenue while having to up costs for welfare and other social programs. Altogether, the replacement of workers with some form of artificial intelligence would be a significant detriment to all the world’s citizens, not just those in the jobs that are replaced.
But this does not have to be our fate. If society chooses so, we can alter the implementation of future technologies to be for the betterment of all. That means fewer hours at work, more efficiency in the hours we do work, and the added benefit of improved goods and services produced by artificial intelligence.
Imagine if instead of a Verizon customer support representative being replaced by AI, they were assisted by it. Any questions that were capable of being answered by an AI chatbot, such as ‘Where is the closest Verizon store?” could be handled by the machine, while more difficult questions requiring the support rep could be handled on an appointment basis. As the overall number of customer inquiries is reduced, the rep would find themselves working fewer hours, only meeting with clients when necessary while letting all the “easy” questions be answered by a robot that doesn’t need to sleep, eat, or spend time with their children.
Now, I can already hear some readers thinking, “But the customer support rep won’t be the one to benefit. She may only have to work three hours a day, but she’s not going to get paid for the work the AI does!” This is correct, but only under our capitalist model of production, in which the owners will try to maximize profit by cutting labor costs. If we were to switch to a different mode of production, one in which the customer support rep owned and controlled Verizon as opposed to the profit-focused owners, then AI would benefit the customer support worker, not Verizon’s owners. Instead of cutting the support rep’s salary, the worked-owned Verizon could keep wages steady as they reduce the number of hours every employee needs to work. This same effect could be spread across society, en masse.
Whether or not AI will be a net positive or net detriment to society is yet to be known. But what we do know is that there are bound to be specific winners and losers, and it’s quite evident that the masses are probably going to end up the latter. But this outcome is not inevitable; it is a choice. We, our collective society, could choose to ensure the aid of artificial intelligence is shared by all.
What do you think the potential implication of artificial intelligence are for society? Do you agree with my assessment? Share your thoughts in the comments.