As artificial intelligence (AI) continues to progress, the most pressing concerns may have nothing to do with sci-fi visions of robot overlords or a cyborg society. Despite unprecedented achievements and rapid advances in AI, concerns about nightmarish, wholesale transformations of society are still a long way from becoming a reality, if they ever do at all. Long before anything like this becomes a real threat, society will face serious challenges to its economic order. Already, economists have noted that AI has contributed to rising economic inequality, and other experts have predicted a serious threat to jobs. After the 2008 financial crisis already dealt a blow to the middle class, society needs to be vigilant and plan ahead to ensure AI benefits society as a whole, and not just business owners and the richest segment of society.
Many experts have already observed these effects from AI and recent technology advances in general. According to Bart Selman of Cornell University:
“It’s almost a moral principle that we should share benefits among more people in society. I think it’s now down to eight people who have as much as half of humanity. These are incredible numbers, and of course if you look at that list it’s often technology pioneers that own that half. So we have to go into a mode where we are first educating the people about what’s causing this inequality and acknowledging that technology is part of that cost, and then society has to decide how to proceed.”
Dan Weld, a professor at the University of Washington said: “AI is likely to dramatically increase income disparity, perhaps more so than other technologies that have come about recently. If a significant percentage of the populace loses employment, that’s going to create severe problems, right? We need to be thinking about ways to cope with these issues, very seriously and soon.”
Last December, a research report from the White House warned that alongside a boost to overall productivity, advances in AI are likely to exacerbate income inequality, potentially eliminating millions of jobs.
“Because AI is not a single technology, but rather a collection of technologies that are applied to specific tasks, the effects of AI will be felt unevenly through the economy. Some tasks will be more easily automated than others, and some jobs will be affected more than others—both negatively and positively,” according to the White House report.
Lower-wage jobs appear to be facing the most direct and urgent threats from AI, threatening to deal another blow to an already struggling middle class. Self-driving cars and robotics already threaten jobs in construction, delivery services, and in factories. Other AI technology threatens to replace workers in customer service, telemarketing, and in banks. But even some areas of skilled labor could suffer – radiologists, paralegals, stock and bond traders, and others could see their jobs carried out by advanced AI.
The report says that automation will put additional downward pressure on these groups, pushing down wages, and increasing inequality. The report also warns there may be unforeseen effects – possibly larger and quite different. AI could create a situation in which the benefits of technology are enjoyed by an even smaller portion of society than now. Today, the benefits of technology are effectively limited only to highly-skilled workers, the report points out.
From a broader view, AI offers benefits to productivity and ultimately means less labor is needed to complete tasks. In theory, this should have a positive impact on society. But a closer look through an economic lens reveals problems. How can these benefits be distributed more broadly, beyond business owners who stand to cut labor costs? How can these changes benefit workers whose jobs become redundant?
Alongside the report, the White House suggested three key policy moves to address this. For one, invest in AI in areas such as cyber-defense, and boost education in this field. Also, Americans will need new education and training to function in new roles in society. Finally, policymakers should help workers transition into new areas and set policy to allow workers to share in the growth from new technology. This could involve a modernized and strengthened social safety net, such as a more robust unemployment insurance system to smooth transitions.
In the longer run, society may need to reorganize the way it values labor. AI is a long way from being able to fulfill certain tasks. Jobs that involve “people skills” and nuanced social interaction, such as bartending, social work, and hospitality will still require the human touch for the foreseeable future. But to what extent can these jobs really replace those lost in sectors like factory work? The world only needs a certain amount of social workers and concierges.
Jobs that call for “cross-domain” thinking, such as the work of a trial lawyer, will not be filled by robots anytime soon. Unfortunately, these jobs often require extensive training, making it hard to quickly transition workers into these fields.
These problems do have potential solutions, but it is important to not let abstract fears of ultra-advanced AI obscure the more pressing reality, that threatens an already struggling segment of the population. It will take deliberation and bold policy decisions, but it is very possible to ensure that the benefits of AI technology are shared throughout society.