Cory Doctorow: Full Employment

Cory Doctorow
Photo by Paula Mariel Salischiker

Cory Doctorow

I am an AI skeptic. I am baffled by anyone who isn’t.

I don’t see any path from continuous improvements to the (admittedly impressive) ”machine learning” field that leads to a general AI any more than I can see a path from continuous improvements in horse-breeding that leads to an internal combustion engine.

Not only am I an AI skeptic, I’m an automation-employment-crisis skeptic. That is, I believe that even if we were – by some impossible-to-imagine means – to produce a general AI tomorrow, we would still have 200-300 years of full employment for every human who wanted a job ahead of us.

I’m talking about climate change, of course.

Remediating climate change will involve unimaginably labor-intensive tasks, like relocating every coastal city in the world kilometers inland, building high-speed rail links to replace aviation links, caring for hundreds of millions of traumatized, displaced people, and treating runaway zoontoic and insectborne pandemics.

These tasks will absorb more than 100% of any labor freed up by automation. Every person whose job is obsolete because of automation will have ten jobs waiting for them, for the entire foreseeable future. This means that even if you indulge in a thought experiment in which a General AI emerges that starts doing stuff humans can do – sometimes better than any human could do them – it would not lead to technological unemployment.

Perhaps you think I’m dodging the question. If we’re willing to stipulate a fundamental breakthrough that produces an AI, what about a comparable geoengineering breakthrough? Maybe our (imaginary) AIs will be so smart that they’ll figure out how to change the Earth’s albedo.

Sorry, that’s not SF, it’s fantasy.

It is too late to halt the climate processes that will flood every coastal city, displace hundreds of millions of people, and sicken billions as pathogenbearing organisms seek new habitats where there is neither a resistance to them nor a predator to dampen the spread of their hosts. These processes will occur irrespective of geoengineering.

To understand why, consider just one factor: the heat we’ve sunk into the oceans. The seas won’t cool until the energy trapped in their depths is expended. Which means that, to a first approximation, the ice-caps are toast. I will speculate with you about GAIs all night long, but I’m not here for thought experiments in which we repeal the second law of thermodynamics. That’s not scenario-building, it’s wishful thinking.

The good news about all of this is that it reveals the locus of the problem with technological unemployment: it’s not a technological problem at all, it’s an economic one. Read More …

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