The Real Threat of AI

Kai-Fu Lee writing an opinion piece for the New York Times:

Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too.

This transformation will result in enormous profits for the companies that develop A.I., as well as for the companies that adopt it. Imagine how much money a company like Uber would make if it used only robot drivers. Imagine the profits if Apple could manufacture its products without human labor. Imagine the gains to a loan company that could issue 30 million loans a year with virtually no human involvement. (As it happens, my venture capital firm has invested in just such a loan company.)

We are thus facing two developments that do not sit easily together: enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands and enormous numbers of people out of work. What is to be done?

Being in the tech industry and having done a lot of work in automation, this is something I often think about.  Artificial intelligence and machine learning are enabling companies to hire fewer people (or hire people for more specific roles).  Those who get hired or keep their jobs are doing the work that cannot be easily automated and relying on software tools for tasks that used to be fulfilled by people.  A significant portion of those savings benefit shareholders aiding the phenomenon, “the rich get richer”.

I’m still hopeful that new types of innovative, creative, and well compensating work will appear, but in the meantime, our society needs to be able to handle the influx of the newly unemployed.  People who lose out because of larger economic forces, entirely out of their control, need to be able to retrain and remake themselves for a new economy.  Instead, we (the US) are cutting social services like healthcare and reducing investment in community colleges and universities. Seems like we should be doing the opposite.