Will Artificial Intelligence Destroy the Middle Class?

Yesterday I discussed new robots aimed at reducing supermarket costs by stocking shelves and replacing grandma’s shopping cart with automatons that follow one home with the groceries.

And I asked, once again, about the impact of artificial intelligence on the economy. Granted, we can’t stop progress—nor should we. No one wants to return to the days when harvesting a field required an army of men with scythes or doing the laundry was an all-day, backbreaking job. The question I always ask is whether a new robot/kiosk/AI improves our lives by making human beings more productive and efficient or replaces people altogether.

I think that distinction is critical because it means the difference between growing an economy and removing an entire layer of real people from participating in it.

Humans Made Redundant

Anyone who watched the Season 2 premiere of Humans on Monday night saw Joe Hawkins, a regional sales manager with 14 years of experience with his company being replaced by a “synth,” a humanoid robot.

The redundant Joe Hawkins

Anyone who watched the Season 2 premiere of Humans on Monday night saw Joe Hawkins, a regional sales manager with 14 years of experience with his company being replaced by a “synth,” a humanoid robot. He’s told that he’s being made redundant. When Hawkins protests that he has relationships with his clients, including knowing their anniversaries and the birthdays of their children, the replacement synth recites the relevant dates, which have been stored in its database. Does that mean it will have a relationship with human clients? Not likely. Not, at least, until they are also replaced by synths and human birthdays become irrelevant.

Hawkins tells his family that everything will be all right, that he will get another job, but we can see that he doesn’t believe it. The synths are not making his life more productive—they are relegating him to permanent unemployment, a lesser status that doesn’t include participation in the economy.

It’s the Middle Class, Stupid

What happens when a whole class of people have been made redundant and kicked out of productive employment? Cade Metz addressed that problem in his Wired article, “The AI Threat Isn’t Skynet; It’s the End of the Middle Class.”  He says,

“Machines aren’t just taking the place of humans on the assembly line. They’re doing a better job. And all this before the coming wave of AI upends so many other sectors of the economy.”

Because on the other hand we have Ray Dalio of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates LP. He wants to automate most of the investment firm’s management with a software system known as “The Book of the Future.” In this system, human fund managers—who are presumably intelligent, well-educated and hard working—would be supervised, guided and outright ordered around by a machine.Mr. Metz relates how MIT Economist Andrew McAfee spoke to a gathering of scientists at a coastal retreat called Asilomar on the current wave of AI innovations. “If current trends continue,’ Mr. McAfee said, “people are going to rise up well before the machines do.” After his talk, however, other researchers warned him that, “the coming revolution in AI would eliminate far more jobs far more quickly than he expected.

Danger, Will Robinson!

So I guess that fellow Blogger David Hunt and I aren’t the only ones who see danger ahead from artificial intelligence and robots replacing human jobs. The AI researchers, themselves, worry about the implications and potential repercussions.  “Anyone making confident predictions about anything having to do with the future of artificial intelligence is either kidding you or kidding themselves,” McAfee says.

On the one hand, I’m not as gloomy as Prof. Stephen Hawking, who told the BBC that, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Mr. Hawking is significantly more intelligent than I but I think we can stop ourselves before we get to that point.

On the other hand, I feel like we are rushing headlong down a road without knowing where it will take us. Kind of like cattle in the chute, running because every other steer is running and you have to keep up or be trampled. You run, trusting that everything will be all right in the end because, well, it always has before. As any good steak could tell you, that’s a dangerous assumption.

Artificial Inteligence., Optimism and Pessimism

Where do we go from here? I’m not sure and neither are the AI experts.

Artificial intelligence and the robot revolutionWill the optimists prevail with their belief that AI and robots will create more jobs than they destroy? Will the pessimists see Skynet deployed in their lifetime? Will the middle class, rendered obsolete and redundant, rise up en masse and destroy the machines that have taken over their lives? Will the market decide, relegating unneeded robots to the scrap heap of history?

No one knows. But I think we would be wise to have a healthy skepticism about innovations that take over human jobs instead of applauding every new machine uncritically.