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Here Come The Robots

Last week at Notre Dame, I had a conversation with a professor who told me he had been present earlier that dayat a discussion with a visiting scientist. The scientist works in the field of artificial superintelligence. If artificial intelligence focuses on making machines that are as intelligent as humans, artificial superintelligence ponders the possibility of machines that are more intelligent than humans. The Notre Dame professor said that the visiting scientist told them that just that week, a computer he programmed had created a stock-picking program of its own volition.

Of its own volition.

According to my interlocutor, the scientist couldn’t explain it, but it shook him up. We talked for a bit about what the coming AI/ASI revolution will do to our economy and politics. The professor said that massive numbers of people will lose their jobs. I forget the number he said, but when I heard it, I responded, “Then there will be a revolution.” He said in return that one of the great political challenges facing us is figuring out how to maintain stability in the face of what is about to happen.

The next day, I spoke with a student about this. We talked about how a Universal Basic Income might be necessary for the sake of social stability, but it would also be destructive of human character, in that it would deform the natural desire to do meaningful work.

All this came to mind reading this Kevin Drum piece about how mechanization is going to revolutionize our world. Excerpts:

Within 20 years, maybe half of you will be out of jobs. A couple of decades after that, most of the rest of you will be out of jobs.

In one sense, this all sounds great. Let the robots have the damn jobs! No more dragging yourself out of bed at 6 a.m. or spending long days on your feet. We’ll be free to read or write poetry or play video games or whatever we want to do. And a century from now, this is most likely how things will turn out. Humanity will enter a golden age.

But what about 20 years from now? Or 30? We won’t all be out of jobs by then, but a lot of us will—and it will be no golden age. Until we figure out how to fairly distribute the fruits of robot labor, it will be an era of mass joblessness and mass poverty. Working-class job losses played a big role in the 2016 election, and if we don’t want a long succession of demagogues blustering their way into office because machines are taking away people’s livelihoods, this needs to change, and fast. Along with global warming, the transition to a workless future is the biggest challenge by far that progressive politics—not to mention all of humanity—faces. And yet it’s barely on our radar.

By now everyone’s heard the predictions that self-driving cars could lead to 5 million jobs being lost, but few people understand that once artificial-intelligence software is good enough to drive a car, it will be good enough to do a lot of other things too. It won’t be millions of people out of work; it will be tens of millions.

This is what we mean when we talk about “robots.” We’re talking about cognitive abilities, not the fact that they’re made of metal instead of flesh and powered by electricity instead of chicken nuggets.

Drum takes on skeptics’ objections, including the claim that as in the Industrial Revolution, machines will do drudge work, allowing humans to retrain for less onerous tasks. Yes, this happened in the Industrial Revolution, which was very disruptive, but eventually resulted in humans running machines that created a lot more wealth than had existed before. Here’s Drum:

The AI Revolution will be nothing like that. When robots become as smart and capable as human beings, there will be nothing left for people to do because machines will be both stronger and smarter than humans. Even if AI creates lots of new jobs, it’s of no consequence. No matter what job you name, robots will be able to do it. They will manufacture themselves, program themselves, repair themselves, and manage themselves. If you don’t appreciate this, then you don’t appreciate what’s barreling toward us.

In fact, it’s even worse. In addition to doing our jobs at least as well as we do them, intelligent robots will be cheaper, faster, and far more reliable than humans. And they can work 168 hours a week, not just 40. No capitalist in her right mind would continue to employ humans. They’re expensive, they show up late, they complain whenever something changes, and they spend half their time gossiping. Let’s face it: We humans make lousy laborers.

If you want to look at this through a utopian lens, the AI Revolution has the potential to free humanity forever from drudgery. In the best-case scenario, a combination of intelligent robots and green energy will provide everyone on Earth with everything they need. But just as the Industrial Revolution caused a lot of short-term pain, so will intelligent robots. While we’re on the road to our Star Trek future, but before we finally get there, the rich are going to get richer—because they own the robots—and the rest of us are going to get poorer because we’ll be out of jobs. Unless we figure out what we’re going to do about that, the misery of workers over the next few decades will be far worse than anything the Industrial Revolution produced.

I strongly recommend that you read the whole thing. And note this:

The monumental task of dealing with the AI Revolution will be almost entirely up to the political left. After all, when the automation of human labor begins in earnest, the big winners are initially going to be corporations and the rich. Because of this, conservatives will be motivated to see every labor displacement as a one-off event, just as they currently view every drought, every wildfire, and every hurricane as a one-off event. They refuse to see that global warming is behind changing weather patterns because dealing with climate change requires environmental regulations that are bad for business and bad for the rich. Likewise, dealing with an AI Revolution will require new ways of distributing wealth. In the long run this will be good even for the rich, but in the short term it’s a pretty scary prospect for those with money—and one they’ll fight zealously. Until they have no choice left, conservatives are simply not going to admit this is happening, let alone think about how to address it. It’s not in their DNA.

I think Drum is onto something with this. What are the Congressional Republicans up to now? A tax cut. Donald Trump won the presidency in part by leading people to believe he was going to do a lot of infrastructure spending and create more jobs. Didn’t happen, not gonna happen. But we’re going to get a big tax cut, because that’s what Republicans do: pass tax cuts. But look:

Given how healthy the economy is, some economists are mystified over Trump’s urgent push for tax cuts that are likely to be paid for by adding to America’s mountain of debt.

“No other president in modern economic history has tried to do this,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank. “It just seems completely unnecessary. With unemployment at 4.2%, why on earth would we try to stimulate the economy?”

Normally, presidents ask Congress for deficit-financed tax cuts when the economy is weak. That’s what President Obama did in 2009 during the Great Recession, and President George W. Bush did the same after the 2001 downturn.

“This is kind of an odd time to get fiscal stimulus. It’s not like we’re in a recession, or coming out of one,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC.

Here’s the problem: There will be another recession, eventually. And spending heavily to slash the corporate tax rate to 20% from 35% today could leave Congress with fewer options to tackle the next downturn. The current economic expansion is already the second-longest ever.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that Trump’s tax overhaul would slash federal revenue by $2.4 trillion over 10 years, and by $3.2 trillion over the second decade. And the national debt is already 77% of GDP, and slated to keep growing.

“The risk is we don’t have the money for a rainy day. It’s borderline irresponsible,” said Rupkey.

I don’t like paying taxes either, but it seems that the GOP’s response to every question is, “Cut taxes.” Even Trump has gotten on that train. He’s surrounded by people who don’t see it, and don’t want to see it. Seems to me that Steve Bannon seems to have a better general sense of what’s coming and how to exploit it politically than Trump does. I’d love to know what he’s thinking about the AI effect on economics and society.

Thought experiment: what would an effective conservative response to the coming AI revolution and its likely socio-economic effects look like? I think it would have to start by asking not “what seems best according to free market principles?” but “what is likely to keep social stability throughout the coming economic turmoil?”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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