Artificial Intelligence And Social Disruptions


1.   Introduction

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have emerged to become a major social issue over the past decade. While anxiety over AI has been around since at least when Arthur C. Clark wrote the novel Space Odyssey that featured HAL 9000 in the 1960s, it is only recently that genuine AI has become possible in reality. The application of AI to real-life tasks has led to a change in the perception of threat from AI, from initial fears of an AI rebellion and extinction of the human race at the figurative hands of machines to the more “mundane” concern of rising unemployment and social inequality brought about as the result of the AI revolution. While not as dramatic as discussions of the fate of mankind, it is difficult to overstate the disruption that AI can cause to mundane social activities for which humans have taken for granted. On the other hand, AI technology promises great leaps in human understanding of science and society, which may even include AIs assisting in fending off the other great threats to human existence. Whatever form it takes, the AI revolution promises to greatly destabilize human society, and for better or worse in the short term, the world is in for a rough ride.

2.   The AI Revolution

Computers and automation are not new, but artificial intelligence is. The terms “computer,” “automation,” and “AI” are often mixed together when the issue is discussed in popular media programs. The Merriam-Wester dictionary defines artificial intelligence as “1. A branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behaviour in computers or 2. The capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour.” A computer is essentially a glorified calculator that can only carry out commands programmed by humans. Automation merely means the replacement of a task that was previously carried out by humans by machines. An AI, however, can perform beyond the bounds of its programming and reach its own conclusions from the data given to it for analysis. An illustrative example of the difference between AI and computers is when AI Alpha Go beat the world GO champion Lee Sedol by analysis of gathered data from its previous experiences of playing against him, which allowed the AI to guess the best strategy based on patterns it had detected. What Alpha Go did not do was to rely on a set of moves that programmers put into the computer for it to make its decision. Therefore, the AI is an evolving thing, and like humans, it can learn from its experience and makes subsequent decisions based on its experience.

3.   Artificial Intelligence and Society

AIs that can make decisions will, at least theoretically, greatly change how society functions. The most immediate of these likely changes is the loss of jobs, both in the industrialized and in the developing economies around the world. Studies conducted in the United States and other industrialized countries predict that almost 50% of all current jobs will be extinct due to AI by 2020s. What is more worrying is that it is predicted that the emergence of AI will wipe out currently high skilled, and therefore high paying, jobs such as stock-brokers, economists, accountants, and some doctors. What is surprising is that even jobs that require creativity, such as fashion designers, artists, and writers, which is commonly believed to be best able to resist automation, can be replicated by AIs. It turns out that artistic genius and human sense of aesthetics is not so much a “creative spark” that ignites the imagination but is a genius that can be deduced from consumption patterns and quantifiable data. At this point, the question has become “what jobs will be safe from AI?” Like artificial intelligence itself, not even experts have a concrete answer to this question.

Concurrent with the replacement of the human workforce by AIs, there will be winners from the AI Revolution. Currently, many experts believe that AIs will worsen the current socio-economic inequalities which some observers believe are already fueling popular discontent across the industrialized and developing countries. The cost of research and development for AI is high, and only the wealthiest individuals and corporations can afford to invest in it. Once AI technology has reached the commercialization stage, benefits will overwhelmingly accrue to those that already possess the resources to build and employ AIs, meaning large corporations and wealthy individuals. If that happens, even worse social instability will set in, paralleling the instability that swept the newly industrialized nations in the 19th century with movements such as the Luddites, or the rise of the socialist revolutionaries that eventually spawned movements such as Nazism and Communism. Given the already alarming gap between the elites and the populace in many developed and developing countries and the popular reaction against this wealth gap that has manifested in the form of rising popularity of radical politicians, AIs threaten to place this trend into overdrive. The AI Revolution taken to its logical conclusion will lead to the creation of a permanent technocratic elite and a massive unemployed proletariat that will be severely lacking in opportunity for social mobility. It will also wipe out personal and economic freedoms that most people in the industrialized countries have come to take for granted, which again threatens the well-being of the vast majority of people.

4.   Why We Need Artificial Intelligence

However, after the doom and gloom of loss of jobs and the potential destruction/obsolescence of humans, AIs can also potentially be of great benefit to humanity. One of the most important contributions that AI technology can make is to the struggle to combat and adapt to climate change. The AI’s advantages over humans, such as its superior data processing capabilities, would allow the AI to discern patterns and identify solutions. The “evolutionary” speed of AIs in processing capabilities means that they can adapt to situations and assimilate data faster than humans can. Also, more idealistically, the belief in the relative impartiality of AIs can also potentially help to motivate people into action in an age when trust in human leaders and institutions is at an all-time low. The implementation of AI to combat climate change and improve societal sustainability bears promise and just might save human society from even more catastrophic disruptions than that of loss of jobs and social inequality.

5.   Conclusions: The Future

AI promises to greatly change how humans live and work, and even how humanity views its relationship and place in the world. Many experts and analysists fear that the disruptions threatening to be unleashed by the AI revolution will cause further social instability by exacerbating inequality and increase joblessness. On the other hand, AI promises great improvements and strides in almost every field of science and in helping humanity to better mitigate and adapt to a rapidly changing climate. It is difficult to predict whether humanity as a whole will come out of the AI revolution better or worse off, or even how these subjective terms are measured. It is however likely that things will get worse before they get better. Economists estimate that during the 19th Century Industrial Revolution, it took 40 years before wages for the lower classes rose back to pre-industrial levels. It was also the Industrial Revolution that incentivized horrendous social systems, such as chattel slavery or “just” virtual slavery to feed the new factories. Industrialism and its scientific advances had also given rise to “scientific” ways of social organization that was used to justify systematic racism and totalitarianism that had caused millions of deaths through the 20th century. How to minimize the social fallout from the expected AI revolution will be the greatest challenge to politicians and policymakers in the 21st century.

Hanyu Huang