But is that all? You might be eager to find a purpose for a technology that consumes more electricity than Australia, but hasn’t been able to develop real-world functionality beyond paying ransom, drugs, or child pornography. But once you get past the idiot theory, you’re left with just one slogan: It’s high tech.
I’m talking about a problem that goes far beyond cryptocurrencies: a lack of purpose, no reason for society to keep producing more “new, new stuff” despite the high cost, driven by a Silicon Valley artificial narrative Features, any technology will inevitably promote human progress.
According to Dale, interrogating this development is best left to the Luddites. But the confident movement of new technologies into society requires critical assessment. As the casualties of progress mount, it calls into question why we are deploying these technologies in the first place.
The social consequences of social media are chilling, and not just because of their proven potential to distort the national conversation, spreading misinformation too fast for the truth to catch up. As many observers have also complained, they are substituting online social connections for real ones, creating alternate realities that can be manipulated for profit.
As company managers deploy bots to automate processes and take over increasingly complex decision-making, bots have built better reps. But this reputation rests on unexamined assumptions: first, that automation will necessarily improve corporate profitability; and second, that the fruits of this advancement will be shared broadly across society.
Companies that increase productivity are said to expand production and hire more workers. Automation will also create new tasks within companies for humans to complete. Incomes rising in tandem with productivity will generate demand for new products and services, further boosting employment. And the extra competition for labor will drive up wages.
But while these claims make sense, at first blush they don’t really match what we see in the real world, where job growth happens mostly in cheap labor joints like McDonald’s and 7-Eleven. Anyone who thinks that the benefits of automation are being widely shared is missing the point.
A new economic study of the consequences of technological change finds that technological bias against automation can explain much of the rise in wage inequality, polarizing the labor market, unemployment for less educated workers, falling wages and those who are not of people—mainly college graduates or graduate students.
Technologies do require new tasks and open the door to new jobs, but they also favor the highly educated and offer little to workers with basic skills whose tasks are taken over by machines.
Research by economists at MIT, Northwestern University, and Utrecht University found that from 1940 to 1980, the economy created a large number of mid-wage productive and clerical jobs. But now many have disappeared. The jobs created since then have been either high-paying professional positions or low-paying service jobs.
Just wait for AI to hit its stride. What Google CEO Sundar Pichai calls “the most important thing ever to happen to humanity” will open up entirely new areas of human activity, what Silicon Valley plutocrats like to call “disruption.” The workers displaced by the next version of ChatGPT will play their usual role in the progressive narrative: roadkill.
The problem with progress is not just how the results are shared. Earnings are being questioned. You may recall Elon Musk’s admission that “humans are undervalued,” a rare admission of error after his attempts to automate Tesla’s assembly lines caused delays and breakdowns. Mistakes are common: Technology’s contribution to productivity is often hard to find.
As MIT’s Daron Acemoglu has observed, a lot of automation can only yield a modest boost to the bottom line. Think automated customer service or touch screens at McDonald’s. Regardless, managers automate for two reasons: it’s “progress,” everyone is doing it, and the toll the new technology takes on workers is irrelevant to the company. So even if the payoff is minimal, it’s worth it.
In some ways, innovation is happening at a breakneck pace. In 2020, the U.S. Patent Office issued more than 350,000 patents for inventions, almost six times as many as in 1980, at the beginning of the digital revolution. But total factor productivity growth during this period averaged just 0.7 percent a year, less than a third of the rate of growth from the 1940s to the 1970s.
While techno-optimists in Cupertino and Mountain View tend to dismiss dismal numbers as mismeasurements—data crunchers miss out on all the good stuff—many serious academics are starting to think that all the awesome IT Not necessarily a revolution in productivity.
Innovation is undoubtedly a cool thing. Because of this, we are spared the diseases that so often kill us. We can access and process unimaginably large amounts of information. Without new technologies, we will never be able to meet the challenges of decarbonizing our economies and curbing climate change.
But as Acemoglu and his MIT colleague Simon Johnson point out in their forthcoming book, Power and Progress (to be published in May), contemporary evidence and the long history of human technological development confirm that “new technologies It doesn’t automatically lead to widespread prosperity. Whether they do it or not is an economic, social and political choice.”
Silicon Valley, they argue, should not feel empowered to make decisions. As the venture capital industry looks for opportunities for AI to take over more and more tasks and decisions (playing Go, practicing law, analyzing markets), Acemoglu and Johnson worry that technological progress is pushing society down a dark path.
What if, instead of increasing productivity, AI simply redistributed power and prosperity from ordinary people to those who control data? What if it impoverishes billions in the developing world – whose cheap workers can’t compete with cheaper automatons? What if it reinforces bias based on skin color? What if it undermines democracy?
“The evidence is mounting,” they wrote, “that all these concerns are warranted.”
We can avoid Skynet. Technology doesn’t have to lead us to an oligarchy dystopia. The past 150 years have been filled with technological breakthroughs that have empowered workers and lifted all boats.
Think mouse and graphical computer interface, Excel or email. These inventions expanded human capabilities, not eliminated them. Arguably the most important technological revolution in our history, the transformation of an agricultural economy into an industrial powerhouse, made the working class better off.
We have amazing technological tools. The question is whether we deploy them in ways that complement humanity, or discard them like superfluous waste on the way to progress.
It may not be obvious how to deploy technology along a more human-centric path; building tools that augment human capabilities. But one thing is clear. This will require wresting undisputed decisions about the direction of innovation from a tech oligarchy that profits from human displacement and social alienation.
Then we might build an unoptimized social media platform to spread misinformation, grab audience attention, and maximize ad revenue. We probably wouldn’t replace the customer service personnel of corporate America with machines that don’t provide such service. We might not accept the acceleration of climate change because we could find a new way to pay for illegal stuff.
More from other Bloomberg Opinion writers:
• AI has begun the art of saving itself: Leonid Bershidsky
• ChatGPT is not a panacea for Microsoft Bing: Parmy Olson
• Why the future of technology is so unpredictable: Faye Flam
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin America, U.S. economic policy and immigration. He is the author of American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroys Our Promise and The Price of Everything: Finding Ways in the Madness of Prices.
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