AI and Economic Security

In the big data and tech industries, we spend a lot of time talking about either the advantages of big tech or its apocalyptic scenarios. So you’ll see a blog post here talking about how AI can create liveable, sustainable smart cities, and a blog post there talking about how AI will take over the planet and create monsters. On one blog, you’ll read about AI’s positive impact on health and longevity, or about how AI will increase productivity in fields such as email appending. On another blog, you’ll read about the totalitarian nightmare AI will create. 

But the truth is that most voters, most ordinary working people, have an overriding concern about AI that haunts us even as we remain fully aware of the potential of the technology: that concern is that it will create massive job losses and massive decreases in wages, as AI eliminates entire categories of human labor, mercilessly, guided by corporate legal frameworks prioritizing shareholder profits above everything else. That’s the concern, and Morning Consult recently released some pretty eye-opening public opinion data about it: Rather than privacy and freedom being the main worry of folks, “it turns out U.S. voters are less concerned about whether AI will violate their democratic values — like the right to privacy, as well as racial and gender equality — than they are about whether it will take their jobs. Two-thirds of U.S. voters believe that AI could eliminate jobs and cause unemployment.” 

This doesn’t mean people are apathetic about freedom and privacy–over half of those surveyed are also concerned about those things–but it does mean that the number one concern is that good old foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy: food, shelter, basic material security. Freedom is meaningless if you’re starving, privacy unattainable if you don’t have a house. According to Morning Consult, “U.S. voters would prefer the Biden administration to focus first on ensuring that AI does not lead to unemployment and address challenges related to privacy and certain types of bias second.” This prioritization is unsurprising and realistic. 

But let’s take a step back and look at all of this scientifically–including the systemic solution that makes the most sense. Artificial intelligence is the textbook “capitalism = tech = labor saving = negative externalities of labor saving” trajectory. Even in its most benign interpretations, capitalism seeks to provide near-universal access to some items through lowering their prices. For a capitalist economy to function, food, housing, entertainment, fuel, these things need to be cheap and accessible. Obviously some capitalist economists find an advantage in the ability to selectively hike prices on some of these things, but they are short-sighted: shortages or price spikes (which are also the result of crises over which we may have no control) destabilize society, create resistance that slows down capital elsewhere, and lower the overall morale of humanity. This creates unpredictability that benefits only a few competitors in a few fields. 

Either money needs to be readily available or items need to be very inexpensive–or some optimal combination of the two. The solution is a guaranteed income, and the method of funding that income may solve both high prices and low wages.