Thursday, September 21, 2023

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 28-07-2023 19:18

Hard times coming for the common man

If the people warning us about the dangers posed by the sudden arrival of Artificial Intelligence are right, the situation is about to get much worse.

For many in the West and Japan, the half-century that followed the Second World War now looks like a golden age, a “belle époque” far more splendid than the one that suddenly ended in August 1914. It was a period in which living standards steadily rose, welfare arrangements protected people against the health hazards and hopeless poverty that has made life miserable for most of their forebears and, after the Soviet Union imploded in 199l, for them, full-scale war seemed to belong to the past.

But then things started to go wrong. Populations began to shrink, a phenomenon that those in charge of generous pension schemes thought could be countered by importing large numbers of men and women from poorer parts of the world. And, thanks largely to technological progress, the gap between the earnings of a favoured minority and the rest increased sharply. In country after country, this caused serious problems which have recently been made worse by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the need to spend much more money on beefing up armed forces weakened by the illusory “peace dividend”.

For a while, politicians such as Tony Blair thought they had the answer to growing inequality: more education. They opened up their local university systems so far more men and women than before could acquire an academic degree that, presumably, would set them up for life. This did not happen. Grade inflation reduced the value of a university education and millions of young people, some of whom boasted doctorates, were forced to take ill-paying jobs and soon found it desperately hard to make ends meet. They still are.
Not surprisingly, many relatively young men and women feel they have been victims of a heartless swindle. In response to this, politicians have taken to telling ambitious adolescents that, instead of wasting their time studying old-fashioned humanities such as history, or a new disciplines dreamt up by campaigners for some noble cause, they should devote themselves to one of the “hard sciences”. Unfortunately, precious few people are capable of mastering higher mathematics, post-quantum cryptography, the mysteries of molecular biology or the like, let alone contributing anything worthwhile to them.

Intellectual inequality has always been a fact of life, but until not that long ago, in most parts of the world it did not matter very much because to get by almost everyone had to toil away at tasks that did not require much brain power. This ceased being true about a century ago, but only recently has it become of overwhelming importance. Big differences in average academic attainments are behind the fierce and sometimes violent ethnic conflicts that are currently roiling the United States, with supporters of those lagging behind demanding that equality of opportunity, as recommended by believers in “meritocracy”, be replaced by equality of outcome or, as they put it, “equity”. Whether the differences are due to cultural characteristics or something else is a question few dare ask, but so far all attempts to reduce them without infringing the rights of high-achieving Asians, whose parents constantly urge them to try harder, and others who take a more easy-going approach to learning, have failed.

If the people warning us about the dangers posed by the sudden arrival of Artificial Intelligence are right, the situation is about to get much worse. According to them, it will greatly speed up the elimination of jobs involving numbers that are done by fairly bright men and women who have grown accustomed to earning decent salaries. Ironically, among these could be many who have dedicated themselves to computer programming; AI could soon be able to do it all much better than mere humans. What is more, it could do it for free.
In Argentina, it is widely agreed that the sharp decline in educational standards many have noted threatens the country’s future. It is repeatedly pointed out that, among teenagers, barely one in two can make sense of a straightforward written text and that even doing simple sums in the head is beyond most of them. This may be so, but, though it is not much of a consolation, in many other parts of the world, such as the US, people are equally worried by reports coming in from the educational front. Many there have come to the conclusion that schools and universities are more interested in subjecting youngsters to “woke” indoctrination about sexual or racial matters than in anything else.

The unease so many feel when informed that technological progress is about to make them superfluous to requirements is certainly understandable. Formed in societies in which it was assumed that everyone who worked hard and kept to the straight and narrow could enjoy a reasonably successful career, they are now entering one in which many who have always done just that fear they could end up on the scrap heap. Many are already there. Mainly in the US, but also, though to a less dramatic extent, in Europe and Japan, “deaths of despair” have mounted sharply of late, with hundreds of thousands of people committing suicide or dying prematurely from drug abuse, which is why in “the world’s richest nation” life expectancy is falling year after year. The worst hit have been members of the old working class who have seen their livelihoods outsourced to countries such as China, as well as middle-class dropouts who have been made obsolete by technology.

Well-heeled representatives of the financial and political elites are reacting enthusiastically to the advent of AI; they say it will end up by benefitting everyone. Others have good reason to fear that it is coming for them and will deprive them of much of what they value, beginning with their position in society which often depends on what they do. For such people, even a “universal basic income”, as some prominent individuals are proposing, would not be much of a solution. Though in countries rich enough to pay for such a scheme one could at least help keep hunger at bay, there are many who need to believe they are doing something genuinely useful and have no desire to live in idleness. For them, having to depend on handouts would be intolerably demeaning but, if the predictions of those responsible for a survey carried out on behalf of the OECD are right, over a quarter of the skilled jobs in the developed world could soon be automated. This would deprive a huge number of vigorous and capable people not just of a source of income but also, in many cases, of an activity on which they based their self-respect.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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