The Real Problem With AI
The scary part about AI for me isn’t really what it can do. I can imagine all sorts of uses for it in my life (I’m a creative writer and a photographer who makes his living a business/marketing writer/editor and content manager).
The problem is political/economic. Yes, AI will put people out of work. LOTS of them. It already is. Fine, but that, per se, isn’t a problem. The problem – and here comes a critique of capitalism and how it’s wired our brains – is that people will have no way to sustain themselves. Sustaining yourself and working are different things, no matter what rich “job creators” and the pols who work for them say. Sam no longer has a job? But he has the money he needs to live on? Bring on the machines!
But this only works in a society that thinks a few minutes ahead. And in the last election there was precisely one candidate on the stage who wanted to talk about universal basic income (UBI). That was Andrew Yang, and the less said about him, the better.
The alternative is millions and millions and millions of people who can’t support themselves. And to put a very relevant emotional spin on it, can’t provide for their children. These aren’t all “unskilled” laborers, either. Many, many of them used to be white collars and info sector workers. So now you have a huge and very capable and intensely desperate populace. That, by the way, has scary technical savvy and is way armed.
In a lot of ways this is like the Luddite rebellion. Understand, the word “Luddite” is profoundly misunderstood. Let me bore you with a passage from my dissertation, pp149-50.
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 (Rybczynski Taming the Tiger; Pynchon “Is it O.K. to Be a Luddite?”). 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.
At the turn of the 19th Century, factory looms were the latest innovation, and a factory job meant arriving at dawn for a 15 to 18 hour working day, and the door was locked behind you in the morning and not opened until the end of the shift. To the Luddites, the factory looms spelled the end of a way of life, of craftsmanship, of community and of family (Murphy “Are We the Neo-Luddites?”).
From the perspective of modern-day Luddites, the “original rebels against the future” reacted against technological encroachments on the natural order of human society. The Luddites had no objection to many technologies such as the carding engine and the spinning jack that supplemented human labour, but were not a threat to their livelihoods. By contrast, the inhuman machines that characterised the Industrial Revolution were new and different in that they were independent of nature, of geography, and season and weather, of sun, of wind, or water, or human or animal power. They not only destroyed jobs, but marked the beginning of an environmental catastrophe (Ludd “New Luddite”).
Parliament, already fearing the spread of unrest from France to Britain, was persuaded that the Luddite uprising “signaled a population prone to revolution,” and dispatched the military to smash the rebellion in 1812. The size of the detachment – 14,000 soldiers – was “seven times as large as any ever sent to maintain peace in England” (Sale “Lessons”). The movement’s leaders were either executed or deported (Rybczynski; Ludd). Factories, it was assumed, along with the wider transformation to industrial society, “kept people in their place – passive, orderly and productive (Ludd). Perhaps even more important than the physical victory, though, was the linguistic and ideological victory.
The triumph of industrialism was such that Luddism could be reduced to a term of abuse by the new technocratic elite and politicians. Colonial powers imposed destructive innovations on much of the rest of the world’s population, and once their armies had left they re-named their exploitation development (Ludd).
*A 1997 declaration by the “Humanist Laureates of the International Academy of Humanism” – a group of Nobel Laureates, Emeritus scholars, political leaders, activists, and authors which counts among its number such luminaries as Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, and Kurt Vonnegut – vulgarly characterizes “the Luddite option” as historically seeking “to turn back the clock and limit or prohibit the application of already existing technologies.” The statement comes no closer to acknowledging the critical social contexts surrounding the movement than lamenting the possibility that “ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning” (International Academy of Humanism). Vonnegut, at least, should know better.
I don’t see how we move through the automation of our society without lots of bloodshed. I mean, ask yourself how many oligarchs you’d murder to feed your children.