What Happens to Workers in an AI Economy?

November 7, 2016 - 3 minutes read

If you were in Pittsburgh in the past couple months, you might have spotted one of Uber’s self-driving cars — or even had one stop to give you a ride. The opt-in program, conducted under the careful watch of trained real-person driving assistants, was for many NYC app developers a glimpse of the future. Futurologists predict that within just a decade or two, virtually all essential low-income jobs could be taken over by artificial intelligence systems.

For workers currently employed by those jobs, the tech revolution is already creating serious problems. The question is, will we as a society be able to overcome the transition to an AI-enabled social infrastructure? Or will we fail to account for everyone in the jigsaw puzzle of modern life, creating even more inequality and class tension? For better or worse, app developers will have to stay involved with these issues.

One solution to this problem that’s been a common fixture in the AI debate is the concept of a “universal basic income.” In the best case scenario, this would mean that every citizen — not just the wealthy — would have a financial safety net allowing them to pursue their passions rather than flipping burgers. In the worst case scenario, the policy could create a welfare nation filled with passive, uninvolved consumers.

Supporters of the former scenario point to historical periods like the Renaissance, when major cultural advancements in the arts and sciences took place thanks to a system that elevated a lucky few to aristocratic lives of leisure filled with positive-impact “hobbies.” Needless to say, creating a similar system at the expense of robots rather than the working class is highly desirable.

Supporters of the later turn our attention to the general difficulty existing welfare systems have in transitioning unemployed people to “productive” pursuits — not to mention grim studies on mice populations that quickly died off when urgency and purpose were removed from their lives.

Regardless of how such a concept could play out, former Y Combinator president Sam Altman is currently running a pilot program in California, distributing no-strings payments to test subjects. Finland is conducting a similar trial period to see how universal income impacts key communities.

For app developers and other tech workers, the issue of AI job displacement is an issue that requires serious attention. Even when it doesn’t make money for a company, developers have a moral obligation to stay involved in finding solutions to the problems created in the wake of disruptive tech advancements.

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