It is interesting that a lot of the people pushing the narrative that artificial intelligence could end in Terminator-flavoured disaster for the planet are also heavily invested in the technology’s success.
Whether it’s Elon Musk describing AI as “one of the biggest risks to the future of civilisation”, or OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman warning the US Senate about the significant harm that the technology could cause, it is, apparently, good business to talk in hushed, suggestive tones about the existential threat AI poses to humanity.
Obviously, they have a clear interest overegging the AI pudding. Despite recent advances, it is, after all, a technology that remains if not entirely in its infancy, then certainly nowhere near developing the “human-like” capabilities that some of its biggest fans anticipate.
There is at least one other reason for it. “Discussing AI in terms of vague existential risks,” argued Damon Beres, tech editor at The Atlantic, recently, “actually allows Altman, and others... to dodge some of the everyday impacts that we’re already seeing from the technology. For those who work in developing these tools, it’s a clever way of putting the ball in the court of lawmakers.”
The threat to jobs from AI, mostly those on the lower-paid end of the spectrum such as call centre operations and customer service functions, is much more immediate than anything else
When it comes to conceptualising the impact of AI on the planet, forget Skynet or Blade Runner; think McKinsey, as author Ted Chiang suggested in The New Yorker last month. In that context, it is not difficult to see AI performing a similar economic function to McKinsey’s role in normalising “the practice of mass lay-offs as a way of increasing stock prices”, he wrote.
The threat to jobs from AI, mostly those on the lower-paid end of the spectrum such as call centre operations and customer service functions, is much more immediate than anything else.
Yet a quick Google search is more likely to turn up headlines that would make the hokiest sci-fi author blush than anything substantive about job destruction and tech’s (admittedly complex) role in worsening inequality globally over the past few decades. The truth is that those “everyday impacts” that Beres writes about are actually far more prosaic than the apocalyptic visions put forward by some.
Sadly, they are also far less likely to spur the policymakers – who help shape the political and economic context in which the technology is put to work – into action if recent history is anything to go by.