Smart Machines Are in Our Future, Whether We Like It Or Not

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


As the world becomes more complex, it rewards people who can deal effectively with complexity. So does this mean that income inequality is inevitably going to increase, as highly-educated elites gain a bigger and bigger advantage over the less educated? Ryan Avent, responding to Brink Lindsey’s new ebook, Human Capitalism, isn’t so sure. After all, the Industrial Revolution produced such high economic growth that even as less skilled workers replaced artisans, they ended up earning more money:

Now it could be the case that that era was the abberration and the more recent period of rising skill premiums and increased inequality the norm. But it’s also possible that just as an earlier era of rising complexity erased the premiums earned by skilled craftsmen and transferred them to human cogs, a new period of innovation in machine thinking could wipe away the premium now commanded by many of today’s craftsmen—doctors, lawyers, designers, engineers, and so on—and reallocate the gains to the hoi polloi.

It seems to me that the nature of the complementarities between human workers and an enormously complex economy are incredibly uncertain and difficult to predict. I also imagine there are many possible equilibria out there, and that which of those obtain is not unrelated to things like bargaining power. So while I endorse many of Mr Lindsey’s conclusions and policy recommendations, which include things like a focus on early childhood education, I’m less sure that past economic performance is indicative of future results.

I agree, especially with Ryan’s point that there’s a very high level of uncertainty about how this will play out. In fact, I’m mainly linking to this for exactly that reason: because I believe it’s something that deserves a lot of thought. Regardless of whether or not true artificial intelligence is in our near future, computer automation is bound to increase significantly, and in labor markets this is almost certain to shift even more bargaining power toward the owners of capital (who will own the machines) and away from unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

At least, that’s probably what will happen by default. If we don’t want it to happen, we’re going to have to think long and hard about how to stop it.

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate