A fundamental contadiction in the AI narrative

There is a fundamental contradiction driving much of the AI narrative. On the one hand, it is argued that AI will usher in a golden age of wealth and prosperity by making manufacturing, distribution, and engagement processes much more efficient than ever before thanks to the magic of algorithms. On the other hand, however, there are growing concerns that AI will end up destroying vast numbers of blue-collar and white-collar jobs that up to now have been immune from the forces of automation.

Forrester, for example, recently predicted that 6% of all jobs in the US will be eliminated by 2021, with the transportation, logistics, consumer services, and customer service sectors being the most seriously affected. If these predictions are accurate nobody will be safe from the AI monster, except perhaps the small and privileged elite that owns and runs what Jaron Lanier calls the “Siren Servers” that are eating up ever larger swathes of the economy. Ultimately, however, even this select group of people risks being caught up in social conflagrations caused by widespread unemployment and poverty among the rest of the population. It won’t matter how awesome the new gizmos they come out with are, if nobody has the money to buy them! Somehow, supply must be matched with demand.

One idea that is being touted to address this potential problem is that of a universal income that is paid to everyone regardless of their wealth and status and is sufficient to cover their basic necessities. Liberated from the need to fight for economic survival, proponents of the idea argue, people would be able to spend their time raising their families, accumulating new skills and knowledge, and contributing to their communities through voluntary work. Even though they would be virtually excluded from the wealth-generation sector of the economy, they would thus find new forms of fulfillment in their lives beyond mere materialistic consumption and money-making.

On the surface, the idea of a universal income is a seductive one. But does it provide a practical solution to the polarization that many experts believe is being driven by the proliferation of AI in the global economy? I’ll post my thoughts on that in my next few entries.

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