The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence – The New York Times

It’s not robot overlords. It’s economic inequality and a new global order.

Kai-Fu Lee has written a short and smart speculation on the effects of AI, The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence . To summarize his argument:

  • AI is not going to take over the world the way the sci-fi stories have it.
  • The effect will be on tasks as AI takes over tasks that people are paid to do, putting them out of work.
  • How then will we deal with the unemployed? (This is a question people asked in the 1960s when the first wave computerization threatened massive unemployment.)
  • One solution is “Keynesian policies of increased government spending” paid for taxing the companies made wealthy by AI. This spending would pay for “service jobs of love” where people act as the “human interface” to all sorts of services.
  • Those in the jobs that can’t be automated and that make lots of money might also scale back on their time at work so as to provide more jobs of this sort.

So far the essay follows a fairly well worn path, one followed by speculation in the 1960s about how we had to get better at leisure. Where Lee gets interesting is in his reflections on the globalization of this trend.

  • AI businesses tend to concentrate, especially big-data driven AI, so there will be fewer and fewer that are more and more globally dominant.
  • The dominant AI businesses will be in the US and China. The US will specialize in the developed world and China in the developing world. What happens to other countries with no rich AI businesses to tax in order to employ the unemployed?
  • Countries that have decreasing populations will have an advantage as they will have fewer unemployed to deal with. Large and growing populations will become an economic disadvantage.
  • The countries without the profitable businesses and with growing businesses will end up dependent on the few (US and China) wealthy countries that will lead to a new global order.

So if most countries will not be able to tax ultra-profitable A.I. companies to subsidize their workers, what options will they have? I foresee only one: Unless they wish to plunge their people into poverty, they will be forced to negotiate with whichever country supplies most of their A.I. software — China or the United States — to essentially become that country’s economic dependent, taking in welfare subsidies in exchange for letting the “parent” nation’s A.I. companies continue to profit from the dependent country’s users. Such economic arrangements would reshape today’s geopolitical alliances.