The rumblings have started. Maybe not in the streets and not audible everywhere, but there’s a growing unease amongst people: what are to become of us once robots replace humans in the workplace?
And more importantly, how will this affect society at large?
Elon Musk and others have repeatedly sounded the alarm on unregulated AI development, but says Ryan Avent in his excellent article for Politico: “Long before we find ourselves dealing with malevolent AIs or genetically engineered super humans, and perhaps just 10 to 20 years from now, we will have to deal with the threat technology poses to our social order—and to our politics.”
In a world where technology is improving rapidly and great wealth is being created, but a large share of working-age adults are not strictly necessary to keep the economy going optimally, unprecedented prosperity should be possible, says Avent.
But for that to happen, things must change.
Realizing this potential means moving to an economy in which work plays a very different role from the one it plays now and governments will have to adjust to the new situation: social unrest is bound to erupt when people have lost their purpose in life and have to find new ways to spend their time meaningfully.
Avent foresees four scenarios that could play out in the near future.
1. “The best-case scenario is one in which American society experiences a great awakening, leading to a flowering of social movements that provide the political support for significant reforms,” says Avent.
In America, in particular, community action has long been the first line of defense against social hardship, says Avent, referring to the Granger movement that promoted agricultural communities after the Civil War and the Volunteers of America that looked after the victims of the Depression.
In this scenario we might see new institutions through which those without work can contribute their time and labor to society.
The implementation of universal income would allow people who don’t have the skills to work, to contribute through volunteering and so earn a basic income to sustain a normal life.
2. The second scenario is that of creeping authoritarianism.
We have already seen signs of this.
Here Avent refers to America’s worrying tendency to respond to crisis with strong, law-bending executive power in response to threats like terrorism.
Intense disagreement between parties on how to respond to the economic challenges brought about by the digital revolution might lead to permanent gridlock in America, or to a constant succession of fragile coalitions.
This is the danger:
When such governments are placed under pressure, say from terrorists, the population at large will tolerate the application of greater, ever more extra-legal authority by the government.
The thing is, while creeping authoritarianism would do nothing to solve the underlying economic troubles created by the digital era, it could help manage them, Avent points out.
For instance, powerful corporate and military forces could be coopted by an authoritarian regime. They would then have an incentive not to resist the forces remaking society.
There is a worse scenario.
3. Avent foresees that, “If democracy cannot respond effectively and authoritarianism does not keep the peace, then a third scenario becomes more probable—state failure”.
And that might entail richer places like California, deciding to break away and form their own government. Catalonia, which recently voted for independence from Spain is an example.
If a wealthy state can’t get approval from the federal government for measures it deems necessary to cope with current economic situations, such a state might mount massive public support for its stance, which could lead to violence.
It gets worse: state failure might also end in revolution.
It’s not hard to see this possibility playing out. If you have a situation where inequality keeps rising, young people face a future of chronic unemployment and idleness, living standards deteriorate and an inept government that can’t cope, you have a recipe for dissent on a huge scale.
In these circumstances anything can happen.
A new ideological movement might rise, which might promise to deliver a better technological future, but it might also try to keep society functioning by creating new and rigid social hierarchies—isolating military leaders and the high priests of technology from a repressed rabble, says Avent.
4. There is a fourth possible future: the external shock that creates the conditions for radical, but democratic change.
Avent points out that it’s only after the Depression and World War II that large-scale positive change happened.
“One of the most important and disturbing facts of modern economic history is that this bloody, destructive period and its immediate aftermath represent the one time in which most advanced economies were able to reduce inequality significantly.
“It may be that the social cohesion needed to build a truly inclusive economy, which puts technology to work to the benefit of all, is impossible to build in the absence of such dire threats,” Avent concludes.
Ominous words indeed.
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