Artificial intelligence is all over the news, with tech titans arguing over whether it is a force for good or bad. An equally important question is whether AI will further stratify society, creating a world of haves and have-nots.
AI is already impacting multiple industries and will take over many blue collar and white collar jobs in the coming years. The speed and severity with which this happens will determine the enormity of the challenge for the U.S. and other countries around the world. Add to this the geopolitical implications, recently outlined in an important op-ed by Kai Fu Lee, and even weak AI can be seen as something scary.
We need to be proactive and create alternative career paths for people as AI impacts jobs and takes away many employment opportunities. Let’s look at what this means in the near-term (next decade), medium-term (10-20 years) and long-term (20-plus years).
As AI continues to grow, blue collar jobs will generally be impacted first. The political reality is that this will likely not cause major policy changes, as higher earners will remain largely unaffected by job changes and will possibly benefit from AI’s positives. But as autonomous vehicles run by AI take over for taxi drivers (and make transportation more reliable and faster while opening up spaces currently occupied by parking garages) and robots with AI take over all but the most specialized work on factory floors (reducing production costs, which will hopefully translate into less-expensive goods), blue collar workers will have few alternatives positions to pivot to.
Unless programs are put into place early on to create “soft landings” for blue collar workers — through training in careers that cannot be automated easily — we will likely see increased economic polarization. For some, these new opportunities could be in jobs that rely heavily on interpersonal interactions, while others could learn the basics of working with and programming AI. Overall, though, it is likely going to be a tough time for those without a strong education base.
By the late 2020s, AI will be commonplace and most blue collar jobs will likely be a shadow of their former selves. In addition, white collar workers in areas such as health care and financial services will also be under extreme pressure. Who needs a lab technician to read your X-ray when an AI can do it faster, more cheaply, and at least as well? To be sure, white collar workers are going to feel the pinch long before this, but it will take some time before this group sees their career options change markedly. For better or worse, it’s when this does occur that we are likely to see major societal changes.
More white collar workers will transition to jobs that can only be done by humans, but these, too, will be limited. Low-level programmers who understand coding may be able to quickly learn how to program an AI, but those outside of tech, like lawyers — many of whose jobs will be eliminated — will face a much more daunting transition into new careers.
There is no consensus, but within the next twenty years, we will likely see the emergence of AI at least as smart as human beings. Having benevolent AI to work with and for human beings could benefit society at large, but advances could also lead to a society in which the haves — who will own the strong AI — and the have-nots live in conflict. We could even see a merging of human and AI such that we become something greater than we currently are.
The lucky few who own and work for the companies that control the best AI may be able to consolidate their wealth, power, and insight to dominate society. This brings up the fundamental question of whether AI should be controlled by large tech companies or disseminated more broadly? To further complicate things, AI works best by leveraging network effects, so breaking the Amazons and Baidus of the world into smaller enterprises would be foolish and outmoded. Regardless who owns and controls the best AI, the network effects need to be maintained, otherwise the benefits of AI will be destroyed. To be sure, Google and others have opened some AI tools to the masses, but clearly, they have and will keep the best tech for themselves.
A number of our best minds believe that the rise and concentration of AI will mean that tax rates need to be increased in order to fund social welfare for the large segment of society that will be displaced. This is certainly an option with merits (allowing people to perform useful but currently underpaid jobs or freeing them to become lifelong learners), but whether implemented through Universal Basic Income or another system, it may prove difficult to achieve without open conflict.
Another option is to make the big data that will feed AI and basic AI modules available to all — a creative commons of data and AI. This could enable blue collar and white collar professionals alike to innovate and create small and medium-sized businesses that leverage the growth of AI. This path would require strong governmental intervention but would empower the private sector rather than taxing it.
An additional option is to place the best AI in the hands of governments and allow people to pursue their passions while having their basic needs attended to by government-generated wealth. This is the Star Trek future outlined by science fiction, but it is also a distinct possibility — if we get comfortable with the idea of everyone receiving a government handout. Indeed, the concept of money itself would be outmoded in such a society.
Added to all of this are the foreign policy implications of AI, which Kai Fu Lee addresses insightfully in his recent piece. If you are living in the U.S. or China, consider yourself lucky: Your government has far more choice (and say) when it comes to the rise of AI. At the very least, these two nations will not have to grapple with reduced power arising from the technological revolutions of others.
So what does this all mean? Are we on a path to a world increasingly divided into haves and have-nots? Maybe. But there are several alternate paths we can take if we are honest, thoughtful, and forward-thinking. Certainly AI is here to stay, and it will create many positive outcomes. The negatives depicted in science fiction may or may not happen. But in the meantime, society will feel a tremendous impact — so it’s better to be ahead of the curve, to be part of the debate, and to be proactive in finding equitable solutions.
Ed Sappin is the CEO of Sappin Global Strategies (SGS), a strategy and investment firm dedicated to the innovation economy.