In the second of two postings, we look at the impact of artificial intelligence on our societies and economies.
Back when Amazon mostly sold books, it hired writers and editors to come up with helpful reviews and recommendations. The aim was to create the atmosphere of a friendly local bookshop. But the writers and editors didn’t last. They were replaced by Amabot, an algorithm that picked up on users’ browsing and buying history.
Amabot’s buying recommendations were – and are – often eerily accurate, but even some of Amazon’s own people didn’t much like the software robot. As Steve Coll writes, one anonymous staffer even vented his spleen in a newspaper ad: “Thanks for nothing, you jury-rigged rust bucket. The gorgeous messiness of flesh and blood will prevail!”
Will it? Just over a decade since that ad appeared, the rust buckets are becoming more powerful by the day. Even sober commentators like the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf speak of the dawn of a “second machine age,” one in which machines “will replace and multiply our intelligence.” And how about flesh and blood – i.e. you and me? To return to Martin Wolf’s theme, it depends on whether your intelligence is about to be multiplied or replaced.
Wolf’s theme is explored in greater depth in Average is Over by the influential economist Tyler Cowen, who argues that only a fairly small number of workers – perhaps 10 to 15% in the U.S. – will have the sort of skills that can be complemented, or multiplied, by computers. As a metaphor for the carbon-silicon partnerships that will succeed in the high-tech economy, he uses “freestyle chess,” where players are allowed to augment their skills with computers. For example, while a computer might need to scroll through all the possible moves in a chess game before making a decision, a human partner could use intuition and insight to spot an opening and then instruct the computer to focus on pursuing that opportunity. In this case, the combination of human and computer is stronger than either human or computer alone.
But what about everyone else? Well, if you can’t add value to the computer you may be at increasing risk of simply being replaced by it. According to estimates by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, 47% of jobs in an advanced economy like the U.S. are at risk from computerization, adding to the long list of jobs that have already been lost to technology. As Bill Gates warned recently, “Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. … I don’t think people have that in their mental model.” But the technology revolution won’t just affect people working in low-skill, highly routinized occupations. As Tom Meltzer notes, it will also increasingly threaten the jobs of lawyers, architects and doctors (even writers won’t be immune).
Of course, these fears may be overstated. Technology has repeatedly replaced jobs in the past – think of hand-weavers and phone operators – but people still found something new to do. Still, even if we don’t head into an era of mass unemployment, there seems little doubt that the second machine age will drive an even bigger wedge into the division of economic spoils, deepening still further the trend of rising income inequality in the coming decades.
According to a recent OECD paper, earnings inequalities in countries that are today regarded as relatively egalitarian, such as Italy, Sweden and Norway, will by 2060 match levels currently found in the U.S. Most of the gap in earnings will be concentrated between high and middle-income earners.
How can societies respond? The Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen ascribed much of the widening in income gaps to a “race between education and technology”. When education levels are rising relative to improvements in technology, the gap narrows; when they’re falling, it widens. That’s why so much policy discussion in this area, including the OECD paper, emphasises education investment, especially building strong foundations in children’s early years.
But with technology now racing so far ahead of education, societies will clearly need to consider other options. These could include, perhaps, even deeper income redistribution than we see today, effectively subsidising people to work less.
That’s not such a new idea: As long ago as the 1930s, the economist J.M. Keynes foresaw a time when economic wealth and automation allowed people to work a 15-hour week. More recently, Google’s Larry Page revived the idea in an interview with The Guardian: “In Page’s view robots and machines should be able to provide a ‘time of abundance’ where everyone’s basic needs could be met relatively easily.” How would you spend all that spare time? No doubt Amabot could recommend a few good reads to fill the long hours.
Divided We Stand – Why Inequality Keeps Rising (OECD, 2011)