Scott Wharton, VP & GM, Logitech Video Collaboration
What would you do if you did not have to work for a living? Would you travel, stay at home, spend more time with your kids, volunteer, go back to school, or perhaps pursue a lifelong hobby or passion in a more intense way? Maybe you would consider taking a gap year, backpacking around the world, playing in a band, or hanging out in the Rockies as a ski bum. I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. Not because I plan on not working. I don’t. I’m passionate about video collaboration, and I want to continue moving the industry forward for the foreseeable future. The reason I’m thinking about this topic is artificial intelligence (AI) and the impact it will have on our society.
AI has been on my mind for a while now. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel around the world with my family for a year. This afforded me a lot of time to relax and read, and one of the topics I chose to focus on was AI. I devoured dozens of books on the subject and became convinced that it would revolutionize our lives in society as we know it (and not all of it positive).
How AI is Evolving
On the plus side, AI will unleash a golden age of productivity, reinventing nearly all human economic endeavors. AI is not only about software and female-sounding voice assistants. It will also be a plethora of hardware robots that can move, think, even sense via sight, touch, hearing, and smell with the ability to empathize in a human-like way. And these AIs will progress so much faster than mankind ever has. Throughout human history, our rate of learning has improved and recently started to accelerate exponentially. But we will always be constrained by our ability to learn new things and adapt to new technologies. AI doesn’t have that constraint. It can improve at Moore’s Law (a doubling of performance approximately every 18 months), an order of magnitude faster than humans. As AI infiltrate more economic activity, the economic growth rates could start speeding up dramatically.
AI and Economics
During the first 10,000 years of human history, economic growth rates were very slow to stagnant. Over the past 200 years though, global economic growth has accelerated to somewhere around 3-4 percent per year. No immutable law says it must continue at this rate. Most of us intuitively experience the speed up of technology, yet are not seeing the results in the economic stats. I believe this will soon change. The impact of a faster-growing economy would be dramatic. I recently read that in 2017 the total global economic output, or Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is projected to be approximately $78 trillion. This is roughly $10,000 per person on average. After 30 years at the current 3.7 percent growth rate, the economy would triple to $232 trillion. Not bad. But a growth rate increase to 5 percent would make the economy $337 trillion or five times larger than it currently is. Ratchet it up to 10 percent, and you have a $1.36 quadrillion (or $1,360 trillion) economy – nearly $200K per person. This is potentially great news. With such a dramatic increase, we might have enough money to potentially solve most of today’s problems (poverty, healthcare, environmental damage) and still have plenty left over for enriching lifestyles.
The Downside of Progress
But there is a downside: If AI truly takes off, it will make the majority of humans unemployable. Why? Because, these computers will be more productive and cost-effective to hire than humans at almost any price. As an example, if a company could “hire” an automated doctor or lawyer at $5 per hour, and they performed tasks more accurately than nearly all humans, it would be economically irrational not to choose the AI over the human.
On the plus side, AI will unleash a golden age of productivity, reinventing nearly all human economic endeavors
The consequence is a vastly wealthier society overall but with mass unemployment, accentuating the problems of income inequality and other corresponding issues. When I’ve mentioned this scenario to others, it’s often met with skepticism. I get it. Economic pessimists have been claiming catastrophe for the past 200 years based on technology eliminating jobs. We’ve seen that new jobs are nearly always created after ones are destroyed and often are better jobs with higher wages. The conventional wisdom holds that humans are extremely capable and flexible and will learn new skills at a higher wage. But I believe this time really is different. Normally, lower-skilled jobs would be replaced by higher-skilled (and paying) jobs. With AI, though, both lower and even higher skilled and paying jobs would be replaced. I’m not saying the humans won’t be valuable. Of course we are and will continue to be. What I am saying is that hiring organizations will increasingly have a choice: hire high-priced humans or lower-priced, AI-powered computers. This will not be based on a lack of imagination, as respected technologist Tim O’Reilly recently argued, but a matter of unsentimental economics.
Employers will rationally choose lower cost resources and substitute human labor with computers if it helps them be competitive in the marketplace.
So you’re out of Work. Now What?
Admittedly, this vision of the future is contentious. But let’s says that it does happen. In fact, according to Upwork’s recent “Freelancing in America: 2017” survey, 49 percent of full-time freelancers indicate that their work has already been affected by AI and robotics. What does it mean, and what should we do about it? First, I would make the case that having fewer people working is not a terrible thing. It might even be a net positive development. In fact, we’re already halfway there. Think about 200 years ago. Nearly everyone who could work did. Children worked as soon as they were able, adults rarely took vacations, and older workers kept going until they passed away. Today is much different. In fact, in many advanced economies, less than half of adults work full time. In the U.S., only approximately 38 percent of Americans work 35 hours or more per week. Kids go to school through high school and college; parents often stay at home, taking care of children, and older workers stop working to enjoy long and increasingly active retirements. We see this as a good thing — a byproduct of a wealthy society.
In 30 years time, with the world anywhere from three to 20 times wealthier, we may have more opportunity than ever before to pursue endeavors beyond paid work and have enough money to support it. When I discuss this idea with others, one concern is how we will maintain human dignity and motivation in a world where people are not working. The argument goes that for people to feel happy and have a sense of self-worth, we need to “do something.” I strongly agree with this. Does it need to be compensated work, though, or could it be work that is inherently valuable and fulfilling? Many types of unpaid work, such as taking care of young children, volunteering for a good cause, or just pursuing one’s passions or dreams are options. No need to wait until retirement. This sounds great and utopian. But there’s a catch. In a world that’s wealthy, but most people aren’t working, how will those people have access to pay for their basic needs? One solution is that more highly paid workers in a society will support more people not working. If the base of workers is more productive, they can command higher salaries and support more people not working. So it’s not hard to imagine a future with 20 percent full-time workers sustaining the rest of society vs. the current 38 percent the US.
Another solution widely cited by academics and Silicon Valley types like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is Universal Basic Income (UBI) where everyone gets some minimum amount of funding. There is already some version of this in Alaska based on so much oil wealth and real-world trials in Finland, Kenya, and other places. UBI need not kill people’s motivation to work. There are variations that could address this shortcoming such as an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, where people get a minimum income but make more based on working. We essentially have a similar but less generous safety net system in place in the wealthy countries covering welfare, disability insurance, and retirement insurance programs in the US like Medicare and Social Security.
Will We Feel Fine?
There’s no question that we are entering into a new era of human history where automation really might replace most jobs with machines. Since AI is still in its infancy, we have some time to adjust to these changes and deal with the societal changes of mass unemployment. But let’s not be complacent. Technology development is speeding up, and society is changing faster than ever. Change can be scary — especially when the pace is accelerating the way it is today. With more productivity and an ever-expanding abundance of resources, the end of our work as we know it could lead to a potentially amazing new chapter in the unfolding story of human history. And if we can build a world that maximizes AI and enables us to be the best we can be - unencumbered by our day jobs - well then, I guess I feel fine.