Artificial intelligence, and what a human life is worth

This week, I finished reading Kai-Fu Lee’s AI superpowers book, a book that gives an overview on the development of AI in both the US and China. In short, it gives me some insight on the development of startups in China – and how brutal it is – and how China is benefitting from the massive amount of data it is accumulating from its mobile users. As China was able to bring online services to the offline domain, China-based AI company was able to benefit from real-world data including user’s mobility, spending habits, etc. What gives China an added advantage is the fact that Chinese users doesn’t mind about privacy as much as their western counterpart. By 2030, China is aiming for a world dominance in the field of AI.

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Back to the capability of AI itself, the author predicted that in the future, AI would be capable of displacing up to 50% of the US workforce, taking care of job that would require data analysis or repetitive actions, such as store cashier, radiologist, market analyst, etc. Which comes to me as a surprise, because initially I alway thought that blue-collar jobs would be the one to get displaced by AI first. But as it turns out, white collar jobs that doesn’t require a lot of creativity is also at risk of being displaced. As a side note, AI is capable of providing human-level analysis capability, but as for now it’s still hard to give robots human capabilities even at a toddler level. So robot apocalypse is still quite far away – AI won’t even replace your plumber anytime soon for that matter.

This job displacement holds a potential for a huge level of social unrest, since as a software, AI holds major advantages compared to human workers. It can work 24/7, it won’t form worker union, and it’s a lot more convenient (and potentially cheaper) to just deploy AI to work on your tasks, rather than having to spend more on human resource management. So once all this workers get replaced by AI, then what next? It is no secret that for some people, their career is their identity – they place their self-worth on how much they earn, and they might also view their career as how they contribute to society. People who are unemployed has a higher risk of getting depression, due to how they perceive themselves as having less worth.

The AI revolution might also amplify the existing gap between the rich and the poor, as the whole thing turns into a positive feedback loop. Bigger companies will have the capability to implement better AI, resulting in increased profit, which allows said company to invest more in even better AI to scale up their business even more.

Some ideas have been proposed to mitigate this worker displacement issues. One of them is to retrain workers and encourage lifelong learning for workers to catch up with the ever improving technolgoy. Indeed, if we look at past events, major technological revolution such as the invention of the steam engine killed some jobs, but with it new jobs which didn’t exist previously show up. Another thing would be to implement universal basic income (UBI), where every single citizen receives fixed income regardless of their status. The idea is that with the increased economic wealth that accompany AI, more taxes should be imposed on companies that use AI to fund this program.

Then again, if AI takes over human jobs, then how do you put a value on humans? Currently, we might think of individuals who generate more economic value as more valuable members of society. But if we go with this line of reasoning, then where do we place less fortunate people who still live in poverty? Simply dismissing them as less valuable would be a tragedy. And if AI turn 50% human workers obsolete, then does that mean that half of the human race holds no value whatsoever? This kind of question has no definite answer, of course. When I think about it, maybe the answer to this question also relates to this statement: “your priority in life is what you want to see upon deathbed.” When we are dying, I’m not sure anyone will have regrets about their publications, lost business deals, not making enough profit, or any material possessions. From biographies and interviews, it appears that most people regret not spending more time on their interpersonal relationships. The author, Kai-Fu Lee, also proposed another solution based on this idea, where in a world where AI takes care of our economic production activities, we should instead give economic incentives for activities that promotes our more humane aspects such as volunteering, childcare, mentoring, etc.

We might still be a couple decades away before this major workforce disruption happens. But before then, hopefully we can prepare for what to come and come with a win-win solution for everyone involved.

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