Back button

Decoding the AI Future: Is subpar automation the real culprit behind sluggish productivity growth?

August 9, 2023
Large futuristic office with people working in front of a large window

Daron Acemoglu, a giant in the realm of labor and AI studies, suggests that the lack of productivity in developed economies may be explained by the unbalanced focus on automation. In this perspective, we often overlook the realities of automation that fall short of excellence. Automation, it seems, carries a bias in our society—a proclivity towards the capitalistic ideals of economic efficiency, with structural elements that favor capital over labor.

Indeed, this is the predominant narrative in technology circles: humans are portrayed as unpredictable, unreliable, complacent, troublesome, not uniform, uncontrollable, and imperfect. Reducing labor costs is not inherently wrong—after all, we all appreciate more affordable products. However, when the narrative strips away human involvement entirely and lacks intellectual honesty about the limitations of machines, we start to spin in circles, trapped within the narrow confines of job definitions and losing sight of potential avenues for innovation.

If we permit the narrative to evolve into one that exclusively emphasizes machine cognition, at the cost of our shared intelligence, we risk undermining our collective ability to tackle pressing issues. This very notion leans into a nuanced critique of capitalism and the tech giants.

The disparity between job loss and job creation is a tough concept for many to grapple with. It's relatively easy to foresee the jobs that might be eradicated, but it's considerably more challenging to envisage the ones that might spring up. We should shift our attention towards the issues that we are yet to solve—some of which are colossal, requiring global coordination and collective intelligence, of which machines can only tackle a part. If someone insists that their digital avatar interacting with your avatar will magically resolve all your shared issues, they are either profoundly misguided or blatantly deceptive.

But what about Universal Basic Income? If AI can unleash enormous productivity, can’t we just all retire and go to the beach?

The proposal for Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a distraction in the broader societal conversation we should be having about the future of work. It presents a simplistic solution to complex issues, and worse, it may potentially veil an embedded bias of technocratic and  undemocratic views.

Commonsense tells us that the feasibility of implementing UBI in the US political climate is profoundly questionable. Our system routinely grapples with, and often fails to pass, policies that are significantly less radical than UBI. From universal healthcare to affordable higher education, we have seen substantial resistance to initiatives aimed at ensuring basic necessities for all. The idea of UBI, with its inherent requirement for dramatic wealth redistribution, is far more radical, and it's not unreasonable to expect even more intense opposition. Emphasizing UBI as the panacea for our social and economic issues distracts from more achievable goals that could make a meaningful impact on people's lives.

Moreover, the UBI discussion subtly undermines the inherent value of work, and this is where it inadvertently aligns with hyper-capitalistic and technocratic perspectives. UBI, with its implicit message that work is a burden to be avoided, fuels a narrative that could lead to increased mechanization and displacement of human labor. While it's crucial to challenge exploitative work practices and strive for better labor conditions, the answer isn't to negate work but to improve its quality and ensure its equitable distribution.

Why are technocrats so fixated on the idea of automating humans out of the picture? This idea stems from a belief that humans are the weak link - we just aren't productive enough and can't ever be. In this narrative, a transition to an all-encompassing superintelligence or artificial general intelligence would instigate an unprecedented productivity leap. This, in turn, would massively reduce costs and potentially create an economy where income from personal data could be sufficient to sustain livelihoods.

The conversation should not revolve around compensating people for the “end of work" due to automation but rather be centered on how we can leverage technology to create more meaningful work and a more equitable society.

Read the full Decoding the AI Future series: