The AI Threat Isn't Skynet - It's the End of the Middle Class

The AI Threat Isn't Skynet - It's the End of the Middle Class

In February 1975, a group of geneticists gathered in a tiny town, Asilomar, on the central coast of California to decide if their work would bring about the end of the world.

42 years on, another group of scientists gathered at Asilomar to consider a similar problem. In January 2017, the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers walked down the same beachside paths as they discussed their rapidly accelerating field and the role it will play in the fate of humanity. It was a private conference but in recent days, organizers released several videos from the conference talks, and some participants have been willing to discuss their experience.

Elon Musk, Stuart Russell, Ray Kurzweil, Demis Hassabis, Sam Harris, Nick Bostrom, David Chalmers, Bart Selman, and Jaan Tallinn discuss with Max Tegmark (moderator) what likely outcomes might be if we succeed in building human-level AGI, and also what we would like to happen.

They discussed the possibility of a superintelligence that could somehow escape human control, and at the end the conference organizers unveiled a set of guidelines, signed by attendees and other AI luminaries, that aim to prevent this possible dystopia. The researchers at Asilomar were also concerned with more immediate matters: the effect of AI on the economy.

One of the reasons I don’t like the discussions about superintelligence is that they’re a distraction from what’s real ... as the poet said, have fewer imaginary problems and more real ones.
— Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence

At a time when the Trump administration is promising to make America great again by restoring old-school manufacturing jobs, AI researchers aren’t taking him too seriously. They know that these jobs are never coming back, thanks in no small part to their own research, which will eliminate so many other kinds of jobs in the years to come, as well. At Asilomar, they looked at the real US economy, the real reasons for the “hollowing out” of the middle class. The problem isn’t immigration — far from it. The problem isn’t offshoring or taxes or regulation. It’s technology.

I am less concerned with Terminator scenarios, ... if current trends continue, people are going to rise up well before the machines do.
— MIT economist Andrew McAfee
Andrew McAfee, Eric Schmidt, Reid Hoffman, and Jeffrey Sachs discuss with Erik Brynjolfsson (moderator) how to grow our prosperity through automation and AI while avoiding potential pitfalls at the January 2017 Asilomar conference organized by the Future of Life Institute.

McAfee pointed to newly collected data that shows a sharp decline in middle class job creation since the 1980s. Now, most new jobs are either at the very low end of the pay scale or the very high end.

The rise of driverless cars and trucks is just a start. New AI techniques are poised to reinvent everything from manufacturing to healthcare to Wall Street. In other words, it’s not just blue-collar jobs that AI endangers.

Several of the rock stars in this field came up to me and said: ‘I think you’re low-balling this one. I think you are underestimating the rate of change’.
— McAfee

In the end, no one left Asilomar with a sure way of preventing economic upheaval. “Anyone making confident predictions about anything having to do with the future of artificial intelligence is either kidding you or kidding themselves,” McAfee says.

That said, these researchers say they are intent on finding the answer. “People work through the concerns in different ways. But I haven’t met an AI researcher who doesn’t care,” Etzioni says. “People are mindful.” But they feel certain that preventing the rise of AI is not the answer. It’s also not really possible—a bit like bringing those old manufacturing jobs back.

AI will transform society, labor, and the economy. But the title of the article is somewhat misleading: it is not AI that threatens the middle class, it is technological progress in general (AI and otherwise) combined with policies that favor capital, at the expense of labor.

The process by which technological progress continuously increases productivity (GNP per capita), yet increases wealth inequality while leaving median income stagnant has been going on since the 1980s in the US. Fiscal policies that have lowered taxes for upper income brackets and kept high taxes on income from labor and low taxes on capital gains have made the problem worse in the US.

The real threat to the middle class is regressive fiscal policies in a time of accelerated technological progress.
— Yann LeCun
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