What do you worry about when you worry about AI? A sci-fi dystopia should not be at the top of your list, according to Kai-Fu Lee, chairman and chief executive of Sinovation Ventures, writing in The New York Times. The singularity and AI’s ability to control us are interesting issues to contemplate, he says, but they are not pressing.
Instead of AIs bent on world domination, we are, as Lee writes, contending with the equivalent of a “spreadsheet on steroids,” which can outperform humans at specific tasks—such as evaluating loan-repayment histories. As this type of AI spreads to thousands of domains, he adds, it will eliminate many jobs. And unlike the industrial revolution, which converted artisans to assembly-line workers, AI “…is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs—mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too.”
Companies that develop and adopt AI will prosper, he says, resulting in “…enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands and enormous numbers of people out of work. What is to be done?”
Retraining is part of the answer, but displaced production-line workers are unlikely to become trail lawyers or other highly paid professionals requiring creativity and cross-domain thinking. Jobs involving people skills—social workers, bartenders, concierges—offer another possibility. “But here, too, there is a problem,” Lee writes. “How many bartenders does a society really need?”
He proposes “service jobs of love”—ones that AI cannot do but that society needs, such as accompanying an older person to a doctor’s appointment or mentoring children. “The volunteer service jobs of today, in other words, may turn into the real jobs of the future,” he writes.
As to who will pay for these jobs, he writes, “It strikes me as unavoidable that large chunks of money created by AI will have to be transferred to those whose jobs have been displaced. This seems feasible only through Keynesian policies of increased government spending, presumably raised through taxation on wealthy companies.”
Another problem is that men, hard hit by deindustrialization, don’t seem to want the “service jobs of love” that Lee proposes. Elsewhere in the Times, Susan Chira writes that about 20 million American men between the ages of 20 and 65 had no paid work in 2015.
“It seems like an easy fix,” she writes. “Traditionally male factory work is drying up. The fastest-growing jobs in the American economy are those that are often held by women. Why not get men to do them?”
She continues, “The problem is that notions of masculinity die hard, in women as well as men. It’s not just that men consider some of the jobs most in demand…to be unmanly or demeaning…. So do some of their wives, prospective employers, and women in these same professions.”
Of course, as I commented earlier, in some locations traditional manufacturing jobs are plentiful.