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.

9 thoughts on “Will Artificial Intelligence Destroy the Middle Class?

  1. So here’s my take on this as I had read the Wired article Aline used exerpts from.

    1. To me there’s a big difference between having a “healthy skepticism” (Which I often lean towards) and “seeing danger ahead..” on this topic. No one really knows if there’s any danger ahead or not. So which are you Aline, a healthy skeptic, or a doom and gloom pessimist?

    2. Certainly there are implications and potential repercussions ahead, with the operative word here being “potential”. I recognize there are risks here for sure, and I for one do not “applaud every new machine uncritically”, but many are pretty good as I’ve professionally worked on them and used them. (I don’t like Keurig’s stuff).

    3. “Growing an economy and removing an entire layer of real people from participating in it” are not necessarily mutually exclusive events. They could both exist concurrently. And as much as there may be a “50% potential or more of all human employment GONE”, there could just as readily be a 50% gain because as you state Aline, “No one knows”. And making dire predictions solves nothing.

    4. “Future Shock” is happening, I certainly believe (Which is one of the tenets of your blog I think.), and the idea of “rushing headlong down a road without knowing where it will take us” as you state, is probably real in many instances, but not universally, and not necessarily with harmful results as you and David suggest.

    5. I think the middle class will continue to shrink for many reasons, some of which I would suggest to you are good reasons you may not have considered, such as: 1 – Many of them are “Baby Boomers” retiring at a current rate of around 10,000 a month now, and they are being replaced by better educated millennials, etc. 2. Many such as myself and perhaps you and David, have risen in wealth to grow out of the middle class into a higher income status. I don’t know how big those two factors are in this equation, but I do know they’re pretty damn significant and should probably somehow be factored into your “Disappearing Middle Class” fears.

    6. So now that you’ve raised the concern, which is perfectly valid, I’d love to see you come up with more than just the “fear and loathing” aspect of this discussion, and blaze a trail into how to deal with it, and what as a society we should practically consider. I’m guessing here, but I think the idea of the masses rising up is more on the fantasy side from disgruntled folks that feel disenfranchised. Let’s have you consider what real, and pragmatic things could be done to better deal with it. Huh?

    7. Minor comment: You mention that this AI thing that replaced Mr. Hawkins was “relegating him to permanent unemployment”. Who said anything about “permanent”? Even he believes he’ll find another job. What’s up with that Aline?

    • Mike: I have to say that I’m a healthy skeptic. Prof. Hawking is a pessimist. But I am younger and healthier than he so perhaps that accounts for it. You have read the Wired article so you know I’m not the only person who is worried about the impact of artificial intelligence on our society and our economy. It appears that, when it comes to worrying about the elimination of the middle class, many of the AI experts are also very concerned.

      You are correct that there are a lot of reasons for the shrinkage of the middle class. A lot of it has to do with education. People used to be able to get a good job with a high school diploma and support a family on one salary. That model is pretty much gone. Yet some people don’t want a higher education–or can’t afford it. There may not be a place for them in the new future. Once upon a time, people would also migrate from parts of the country with no work to areas with good jobs. I wrote once before about two of my uncles who left what was then moribund New England and went to California to work in the aerospace industry. That doesn’t happen so much any more, either. People stay put even though the region might have nothing to offer them.

      What really bothers me is the uncritical applause for and acceptance of robots and AIs, without regard for their possible–notice that I said possible–impacts on human beings and the economy. Now maybe the market will take care of a lot of these devices; if there’s no market for them, they will fail and disappear. That’s a model I can live with. And I will be happy to laugh at tech like the Gita that I think is destined for the scrap heap. Others will succeed regardless of their larger impact.

      I don’t have a magic wand. If the AI experts haven’t come up with a solution, don’t expect me to figure it out all by myself. Our politicians haven’t even thought about this problem but I doubt they could come up with a solution, either. What I do think is possible is attacks on driverless cars and trucks, delivery drones being shot out of the sky, and other forms of sabotage. Remember, that word supposedly comes from the industrial revolution when skilled workers threw their wooden shoes into machinery.

      Watch Humans and see if Joe Hawkins gets another job. I doubt it and I think he’ll join the resistance. We’ll see.

      • Well stated Aline!

        However I don’t think that the model you describe regarding the middle class is all gone. As an example, I know a bunch of folks that used to be lathe operators. That type of job has been replaced by CNC’s for the most part. The folks I know went and got training and learned the new methods for turning a tool, since the operations are very similar. If you’re willing to learn and make an effort, there can still be jobs for folks, no? So, people that don’t want a formal education or can’t afford it, have viable options even today is my thinking.

        Also, I have to say that your comment about “Once upon a time, people would also migrate from parts of the country with no work to areas with good jobs” brought to mind Steinebeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” – not such a good thing, depending on how you look at it I suppose.

        • Unemployed miners in Appalachia — especially the young men — could migrate to work out west on the Bakken Oil Fields where they have trouble finding workers and the pay is high. The conditions aren’t perfect but they weren’t perfect for the Joads, either. Half of my father’s family went to California in the fifties and created new careers for themselves. I’m sure that was difficult for them but it worked out. Just sticking in a place that’s safe and comfortable won’t get you where you need to go. I put myself through college despite a lack of support from my father. That wasn’t safe or comfortable but it worked out for me far better than staying in a depressed part of the state and making do with whatever I could find. Comfort is the enemy of growth.

          • I’m not so certain mining skills would necessarily be that transferable, but who knows? I’m not sure where you’re getting your information of job mobility, but I have to admit that I don’t know much about it. I can tell you that my BSEE son gets queries (as do I) about jobs in California, Texas, and Washington State, but that he prefers it here in the Greater Boston area (LIke we do). My point is I see opportunities for jobs in other locales, so mobility is an option for us. And we don[t feel “stuck” in New England at all, do you?

          • As jobs decline in places like Appalachia and Youngstown, OH, one would expect to see an outmigration of people to parts of the country that have job opportunities. That would turn many communities into ghost towns, the way farming towns in the midwest declined after the dust bowl. But that hasn’t happened. People stay where they are and bemoan the fact that there are no jobs but they don’t move. I don’t feel stuck in New England now but I did in 1991 when I seriously considered moving to Washington for a job a Microsoft or California for a job at Apple (I interviewed for both). In the aftermath of the dotcom bubble many people did leave New England for Silicon valley and other places not so hard hit. Others left high tech for jobs in teaching, retail, bio-medical and other industries. Of course one doesn’t leave a comfortable area if there are jobs to be had. It’s only when the jobs go away that migration becomes attractive–or necessary.

    • How about “Layoffs from automation have 80% of the ‘cost savings’ paid into a training pool for the workers displaced for the first five years after implementation.”?

      You are, IMHO, overly dismissive of the “torches and pitchforks” scenario. Desperate and angry people in large numbers… no, that’s never, ever, EVER resulting in bad things happening.

      Threaten peoples’ livelihoods and the ability to house / feed their families, just watch how angry they get. Have you seen the video of the Carrier exec announcing the closing of the plant and its move to Mexico? IMHO it would NOT have taken a lot for the group to have gotten physical, especially after he lectured them “Be calm, be professional” as he not only announced the destruction of THEIR ability to support themselves, but – as I suspect everyone in the room knew – he’d be pocketing a bonus larger than any one of their annual salaries.

  2. And I know I keep hammering on this other thing as well. To quote Scotty from Star Trek IV: “The more they overtake the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.”

    Given the utter lack of REAL attention to security that I’ve been seeing again and again and again with the IoT and other things, and lots of people around the world eager to unravel the West / America specifically… what happens if the power goes out, whether from a terror attack on the grid, which I’m surprised hasn’t happened SUCCESSFULLY yet – it’s been tried:


    To a cyber attack:

    ** A National Geographic speculative-fiction account of a cyberattack on the American power grid

    To an EMP:

    ** Title: EMP: A Terrorist’s Dream
    >> Note that Iran has tested missiles launched from freighters, and declared “success” when it gets to 100-odd miles. And Shiite doctrine states that the Twelfth Imam CANNOT come until a world war devastates the earth.


    ** Title: EMP Nightmare: How Iran or North Korea Could Destroy America with a Single Bomb

    SO. What happens when food production, harvesting, transportation, and delivery/distribution are all automated, when medicine is no longer done by doctors but by people taking cues from an AI, and so on… and it goes away (whether for mere weeks or for years)?

  3. LOVE the steak comment. 🙂

    Like you, I am not averse to using machines. But as you and I both – and I hammering relentlessly – have pointed out, the SCOPE/SCALE and SPEED of this is unprecedented.

    We’re looking at, potentially, 50% or more of all human employment GONE within a couple of decades. This is not a few small mill towns – source of the original Luddite moniker – this is vast swaths of the entirety of humanity.

    I don’t recall if you mentioned it before, but there was a New Yorker article about some of the techie leaders “prepping” for chaos – and it explicitly cited as one significant concern the rising up of the now-obsolete masses against them for destroying their lives with AI/automation. Yet as I read it, something was lacking: nobody, not one, said “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”

    A “basic universal income” is something that is often proposed. So where will the money come from? From increased, even potentially crushing, taxes on the increased profits and bonus checks the executives are expecting from these technological advances.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *