Mind the Gap

Prepare for robotics, AI to worsen the backlash of globalisation

Governments owe a duty of leadership to their citizens to prepare them for the unintended effects of globalisation, exacerbated by advance in robotics and AI

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 9:38pm

Comparing the World Economic Forum at Davos and President Donald Trump’s inaugural speech last week is like a rare observation of two parallel universes colliding.

One is a gathering of the world’s economic, banking and technology elite. The other was a speech wrapped in doses of hyperbole- a pugilistic, nationalistic call to arms against the elite that painted an unbearable American dystopia.

At Davos, the talk of artificial intelligence was dominated not by business benefits and lucrative efficiencies, but the consequences for the humans caught on the wrong side of technological progress. They are only now starting to consider the changes they are inflicting upon the world.

Stunned by the election of Trump and Britain’s vote to leave the EU last year, Silicon Valley executives and tycoons have anxiously presented themselves at Davos as more responsible and sympathetic. They hope to avoid being vilified in the same way that bankers were after the financial crisis. Life was much easier in the earlier days of capitalism where labour and land were the key resources.

Robots are envisioned as a way to disintermediate capitalism as the platform for organizing society. Yet, Trump promises to disintermediate globalization and technology in the name of populism. We can now add technology to the clash of civilizations. One side says the end is near and the other says it is only the beginning.

“There is not one more important topic for all of us than technology creating inequality and concentrating huge wealth in just a few people,” IBM’s chief executive Ginni Rometty said in her ethical rule book for AI.

That serfdom means power and wealth becomes even more concentrated in those who control, develop and manage AI and the capital that finances its development. The rest of us will be relegated to menial duties and jobs that AI and robots cannot do -- like housekeeping and childcare -- not much different to how Silicon Valley is stratified today.

Is AI really evolving towards a capability where digital refugees will be created at a rate that will impact the broad range of workers around the world?

The thesis that the advance of technology doesn’t destroy jobs, but rather coerces workers into higher productivity roles, was only valid until the development of the ultimate killer app -- artificial intelligence.

If AI rapidly advances that better-than-human intelligence during our lifetime, then the popular analogy for what will happen in the human labour market is what occurred for the employment of the horse.

In 1915, there were more than 25 million horses in the US. The invention of the automobile and powered tractors caused the horse population to dwindle to 3 million by 1960.

Horses were not retrained for new purposes. They mostly became obsolete and largely marginalized.

Today, former factory workers who became truck drivers under the assumption that drivers will always be needed in an economy now confront driverless trucks.

Left alone, market and technological forces can push society down dangerous paths. The unfair outcomes of globalisation introduced us to unanticipated outcomes.

Robotics and AI threaten to accelerate that phenomenon. Governments need to understand they owe a duty of leadership to their citizens.

Maybe recent disruptions like Brexit and Trump will provide that wake up call.