AI Amok: Calling Gen. Neo Ludd

“AI will probably most likely lead to the end of the world, but in the meantime, there’ll be great companies.” – Sam Altman, Chairman of OpenAI

Our dalliance with artificial intelligence hit a major milestone last week. OpenAI, a research organization “with the stated goal of promoting and developing friendly AI in a way that benefits humanity as a whole,”* announced the release of GitHub CoPilot, which…

…autocompletes code snippets, suggests new lines of code, and can even write whole functions based on the description provided. According to the GitHub blog, the tool is not just a language-generating algorithm based on user input — it is a virtual pair programmer.

It learns and adapts to the user’s coding habits, analyzes the available codebase, and generates suggestions backed by billions of lines of public code it has been trained on.

Wow. This will prove incredibly useful for developers right up until it replaces them.

On the question of [will AI replace developers] most experts give answers ranging from no to not completely to not right away. From my perspective – which is more driven by the study of culture, history and political economy – this seems naive in the extreme. History doesn’t provide lots of examples of wealthy people backing technology development that doesn’t land with both feet on the economy.

My view is more in line with what Sciention Editors have to say: Once Ai starts coding, coding will be completely replaced by AI, with the exception of some high-tech jobs such as computer science.”

When, not if.

Meanwhile, a generation of developers code on, while some of their colleagues work tirelessly to put themselves out of work forever.

I don’t get it. I’m baffled by the utter lack of survival instinct.


The Rising Tide

“Luddite” is one of the most misunderstood words in the English language. Its popular use simply denotes “anti-technology.” A Luddite is afraid of machines (and hence, progress).

But that’s not who the Luddites were at all.

While the term “Luddite” popularly connotes someone who is anti-technology, the actual rebellion was more critically aimed at technology which threatened the sanctity of culture. Their reaction was not against progress – they gladly used the newest weaving technology available, and were “interested in innovation and technical improvements to make their work easier” – but were instead opposed to the dehumanizing dislocations of the industrial economy. (p185)

Technology has been disrupting our lives pretty much since the onset of the Industrial Revolution – well, technology as deployed by Capital, that is – and the onset of the “Digital Age” has warp factor 9ed the dynamic.

(“Disruption” is a sexy term in the tech/VC/Silicon Valley world, but if your life is the one being disrupted the mood is less celebratory.)

Perhaps no technology is more central to how the dislocations play out over the coming years and decades than artificial intelligence. Automation has displaced millions of working class jobs already and AI is beginning to take a toll on the white collars, too.

That optimism may come as cold comfort for the artisans of 2020: the millions of paralegals, human resource managers, IT professionals and other knowledge industry workers whose positions are prime targets for a new wave of automation. McKinsey predicts across-the-board cuts in such fields over the next decade. Some fields, like office financial support personnel, are likely to lose more than one in four positions.

Some economists predict even more dramatic changes in the coming years, including a radical shift in top-tier white collar work. Richard Baldwin of the Graduate Institute in Geneva argues that AI, coupled with outsourcing enabled by new advances in telecommunications, will sharply reduce white collar employment. He believes those twin drivers could displace professionals in elite sectors from media and finance to architecture and law, at least until people find new ways to put themselves to work.

The total damage? The World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that “automation will supplant about 85 million jobs by 2025.”**

It predicts that the “future tech-driven economy will create 97 million new jobs,” though, so … all is well?

We’ve heard this song and dance before. Everyone from Daniel Bell to Al Gore waxed poetic about the “information economy,” touting millions of high-paying job and generally pretending that reality didn’t exist for billions of people.

Riffing on Krishan Kumar, I noted (all the way back in 1995) that even “knowledge economy” enterprises depended on an array of functions besides developer geniuses. Administrative, back office, custodial. There was nothing about the rising tide of Silicon Valley likely to lift the bookkeeper’s boat.

And now the bookkeepers are shipwrecked, or soon will be. If they worked at Amazon, they may have even been fired by a machine.

Where is Gen. Ludd When You Need Him?

I ain’t dumb. Barring some sort of global class uprising unprecedented in human history AI is reality. And despite all the benefits it legitimately promises, its development is in the hands of those who have brought us obscene wealth inequality, ubiquitous structural racism and sexism, and economic oppression that’s as bad as anything the DC mob could have dreamed of on January 6.

Right now the world needs a new General Ned Ludd – not to break the looms but to wrest control of them from the sociopaths and authoritarians. Let’s call him Gen. Neo Ludd.

And while I try to be optimistic, I have a hard time imagining a victory without casualties.


* OpenAI was co-founded by Elon Musk, so you make up your own mind about “benefits humanity as a whole.”

** I make my living as a corporate writer. I’m nearing retirement, but if I were 30 years younger GPT-3 would keep me awake at night.

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