In a dark, mostly serious 2010 Globe and Mail piece, Douglas Coupland wrote: “The middle class is over. It’s not coming back.” It seemed at the time the author may have been leaning too heavily on his sci-fi instincts the way he did in thinking the Segway the best thing since the invention of the wheel, but time seems to have been his friend.
In a Guardian essay, Charles Arthur has a go at the 2013 Frey-Osborne paper about automation that alarmed so many, arguing that while scarcity won’t likely be a problem of tomorrow, distribution may be in a big way. An excerpt:
So how much impact will robotics and AI have on jobs, and on society? Carl Benedikt Frey, who with Michael Osborne in 2013 published the seminal paper The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation? – on which the BoA report draws heavily – says that he doesn’t like to be labelled a “doomsday predictor.”
He points out that even while some jobs are replaced, new ones spring up that focus more on services and interaction with and between people. “The fastest-growing occupations in the past five years are all related to services,” he tells the Observer. “The two biggest are Zumba instructor and personal trainer.”
Frey observes that technology is leading to a rarification of leading-edge employment, where fewer and fewer people have the necessary skills to work in the frontline of its advances. “In the 1980s, 8.2% of the US workforce were employed in new technologies introduced in that decade,” he notes. “By the 1990s, it was 4.2%. For the 2000s, our estimate is that it’s just 0.5%. That tells me that, on the one hand, the potential for automation is expanding – but also that technology doesn’t create that many new jobs now compared to the past.”
This worries Chace. “There will be people who own the AI, and therefore own everything else,” he says. “Which means homo sapiens will be split into a handful of ‘gods,’ and then the rest of us.
“I think our best hope going forward is figuring out how to live in an economy of radical abundance, where machines do all the work, and we basically play.”
Arguably, we might be part of the way there already; is a dance fitness programme like Zumba anything more than adult play? But, as Chace says, a workless lifestyle also means “you have to think about a universal income” – a basic, unconditional level of state support.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that there has been so little examination of the social effects of AI.•