AI will end the West’s low productivity and low growth. But who exactly will benefit? | Larry Elliot

Elon Musk isn’t most people’s idea of ​​a classic technophobe, so when the Twitter owner warns of the dangers of artificial intelligence, it’s worth sitting down and talking about. take note of it. Fearing that a new generation of ever-smarter machines could threaten life on Earth as we know it, Musk was one of many at the forefront of technological change calling for a six-month delay in training new computer systems. ‘IA.

There’s nothing new about the idea that the machines are coming and they’re out to get us. Techno-optimists are right to say that the same arguments were put forward by the Luddites in the early 19th century. As such, the ChatGPT chatbot is to the fourth industrial revolution what the spinning jenny was to the first: a product that symbolizes the dawn of a new era.

In the past, there has been a trend of events. New technology has arrived on the scene and offered the prospect of doing things faster and better. Fears have been raised of mass unemployment as machines take over jobs previously held by humans. Eventually the pessimists were wrong and new technology led to higher levels of employment.

There is no doubt that AI will be a game-changer and can end a long period of low productivity and low growth common to Western economies since the global financial crisis erupted 15 years ago. As was the case when tractors replaced farmhands, a single machine will be able to do what countless laborers once did. It’s really not in question.

What East the question is who will benefit from the increase in productivity. What if all the winnings were grabbed by a handful of tech giants? What if history does not repeat itself and AI destroys more jobs than it creates? What if AI led to a net increase in employment, but the new jobs paid less than the old ones? Simply put, what if it was different this time around? That may well be the case.

Much of the debate about the impact of AI is based on guesswork. There have been many studies that have sought to estimate the number of jobs that will be affected – possibly in the hundreds of millions worldwide – but no one knows for sure. That said, some conclusions can be drawn with a reasonable degree of confidence.

First, the pace of technological progress will not slow down and will likely continue to accelerate. ChatGPT was launched last November and in March a new version was available. Musk et al’s call for a six-month moratorium must be seen in the context of the geopolitical struggle between the United States and China. Neither superpower wants to give the other a chance to move forward. The chances of Washington and Beijing getting together and agreeing to a joint break seem remote.

Despite the speed at which technology is advancing, a second conclusion is that there will be no immediate fundamental transformation of economies. Machines are expensive and workers cheap. Additionally, companies have invested heavily in their existing systems, and these sunk costs mean that it will take time for the impact of AI to show up in investment, employment and productivity figures.

A woman works in a spinning machine, a machine that has transformed textile manufacturing
“The ChatGPT chatbot is to the fourth industrial revolution what the spinning machine was to the first: a product that symbolizes the dawn of a new era.” Photo: Print Collector/Getty Images

That said, once change happens, it’s likely to be very disruptive, as swaths of middle-class white-collar jobs are at risk. It will be a break from the past, when previous waves of technological advancement allowed workers laid off from low-paying jobs to find better-paying employment in the new jobs created. People who were no longer needed as farm laborers found work in the factories.

AI poses a challenge to this model because of Moravec’s paradox – the notion that for robots, hard problems are easy and easy problems are hard. Machines can mop the floor with chess grandmasters, but find it harder to remove and clean pieces at the end of the game: tasks that involve mobility and perceptual abilities that have evolved in humans over the course of millions of years.

But jobs that involve empathy and basic motor skills – social work, for example – tend to be poorly paid. This suggests that the jobs most at risk from AI are likely to pay better than those created. Increased use of AI will drive productivity and growth, but as things stand, the gains will be very concentrated.

The final conclusion is that policy makers must use the limited time available to them to respond to the obvious challenges. AI has the potential to bring great benefits, but also carries risks that go beyond economics in the areas of privacy and ethics.

Launching the government’s white paper last week, science and technology secretary Michelle Donelan said she wanted AI to be used to make the UK “a smarter, healthier place and happier places to live and work”. It all sounds wonderful, with echoes of an essay John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930 predicting that within 100 years increased prosperity would allow people to work 15 hours a week.

Keynes’s vision has yet to come to fruition, and neither does Donelan’s unless urgent attention is given to the 3Rs of AI: a global regulatory system that sets common standards for the use and development of AI; retraining to prepare the workforce for the inevitable change; and redistribution to ensure that economic benefits are spread. As with climate change, the other existential threat of our time, time is running out.

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