Many sci-fi movies have painted artificial intelligence (AI) to be an omen of humanity’s demise. The first cinematic appearance of AI was in a 1927 silent German film, “Metropolis.” Throughout the entire film, a humanlike robot had the sole intention of wreaking havoc throughout the city. Despite this initial negative depiction of AI, technology has been racing toward the development of advanced artificial intelligence. According to Forbes, “AI-focused companies raised $12 billion in 2017 alone.” In August of 2021, Elon Musk revealed that he has an aspiration to create a humanoid robot called the Tesla Bot to eliminate mundane tasks and to make the bots accessible to the public by next year. He went as far to say that the Tesla Bot could displace the labor force, rendering physical work a matter of choice. Twitter ran wild after hearing about Musk’s announcement, with many people drawing comparisons to “I, Robot,” “The Terminator” and other apocalyptic movies.
Humans have a tendency to be wary and fearful of new technology, as seen in the 19th-century Luddite movement when artisans destroyed textile machines to protect their own jobs. The fear of AI seems to be widespread, as people are unsure of what AI is capable of and the repercussions of implementing it. The reality is that AI is already implemented in multiple parts of our daily life — the introduction of the Tesla Bot is just a newer way. The threat of AI might not be the climactic, action-packed threat that we see in films. Instead, it could be a dependence on AI that threatens to lull us into complacency.
Elon Musk acknowledges that the creation of the Tesla Bot will have far-reaching impacts on the economy — an implication that is attached with all emerging AI technology. Currently, most AI can only complete the tasks they are programmed for, and since this doesn’t require true reasoning, they have earned the name of Narrow AI. The dream of AI is to transcend the limitations of Narrow AI and reach a state of autonomy where it can continuously adapt on its own with all the abilities of a human brain. This uncontrollable and irreversible state would be revered as AI “singularity.” Daron Acemoglu, an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that “firms that increase their AI adoption by 1 percent reduce their hiring by approximately 1 percent.” As industries try to find more ways to implement AI technology, there will be more and more displacement of workers. Amazon’s implementation of AI into grocery stores demonstrates their ability to completely eradicate cashiers while creating a more efficient way to go grocery shopping.
Acemoglu writes, “Some economists think fears of automation and AI displacing workers are overblown. They argue that as work becomes more AI-automated, the resulting productivity gains will spearhead labor demand in other parts of the economy … even in the same firms doing AI-driven automation.” The problem is the creation of AI itself — the automation economy drives labor demands down without any hope of reviving it. Even further, software developers GitHub and OpenAI have recently unveiled an AI pair programmer named Copilot to help provide coding suggestions based on what the programmer prompts the system. Even though the software is “still a work in progress” according to TechTalks, it will continue to become more reliable and efficient as more people use the technology. The unveiling of this particular AI shows that even the jobs of programming AI are not secure. AI is able to infiltrate every industry, and if AI is able to achieve singularity, even careers such as being an author or an artist are at risk of being replaced.
Attempting to prevent the rapid implementation of AI is almost impossible at this point. Many countries in the world are racing against each other in an attempt for AI dominance, trying to cultivate an environment for these companies to grow and flourish. The reason countries are invested in the evolution of AI is because it is revered as a strategic technology that could help countries get a tactical advantage over other countries and help strengthen governance. China is a great example of this, as it invested heavily into the AI industry while simultaneously implementing it into their infrastructure. Following the release of China’s three-step program to become a world leader in AI by 2030, they have planned to create a “$2.1 billion AI-focused technology research park,” according to Forbes. We can already see China implementing AI into the military and smart cities — during the Hong Kong protests, for example, the government implemented AI surveillance to identify citizens and subsequently curb protests.
Due to the importance of AI to government entities and many other industries, AI has cemented itself as an important factor to the success of new emerging firms. Trying to eradicate AI currently would actually impede the advancement of society as a whole. Though AI does pose a lot of threats such as the displacement of workers, built-in programmer biases and implications of AI in our political and economic system, the ability of an AI outweighs the risks. Its pure speed in utilizing huge reserves of information and executing action could change the way we live. It is dependent on developers and users as a whole to protect in the manner of how AI is utilized, perhaps through legislation or creating open source AI that is accessible to everyone. Then we could all access even a simple version of an AI that would also help our personal life.
One of the methods Elon Musk proposed in combating the displacement of workers would be to introduce a universal basic income. With the introduction of a universal basic income, we could lessen the strife of structural unemployment and shift toward a different type of societal model — one that bases itself less on a capitalistic work life and more of an emphasis on the humanities and the arts. Perhaps by allowing people to have more free time and less worries about their financial security, we could spur a new renaissance. We could fear AI and allow it to control our lives, or we could act before it becomes too powerful, using AI to benefit us as a society.
Akshay Ma Kumar is a senior majoring in economics.