Artificial intelligence (AI) has a lot of potential – but it could be an economic blessing or curse, depending on how it is implemented and managed. The answer to this question will hinge on whether policymakers can balance embracing the technology’s possibilities and addressing its possible negative consequences. History offers clues as to how this might be done.
Many worry that AI will destroy jobs, causing social unrest and violence worldwide. While some of this concern is unfounded, there is also a danger that a future dependent on AI could increase inequality. If AI continues to drive up productivity and incomes for the rich, it could exacerbate already entrenched inequalities and result in the loss of middle-class jobs. This could fuel discontent and spark protests like the ones that brought down Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Sudan.
The truth is that the impact of any new technology depends on how it is implemented and managed. AI has the potential to create a more equitable society by increasing efficiency and improving the quality of life for the majority, but this requires leadership that can overcome cultural and organizational barriers to broad adoption. Companies that can do so will reap the rewards of a more prosperous future.
To understand what this entails, it’s helpful to look at the history of advances in farming and other technologies. For example, medieval advances in the plow didn’t lift Europe’s peasants out of poverty, despite making cultivation more remunerative than it had been. The reason lay in the process of enclosure, which began in the late medieval period. In an enclosed village, peasants held their cultivated land in fenced strips and had the right to graze a few animals on the village commons. Enclosure consolidated the strips into individual fields, drove up the price of wheat, and reduced the number of livestock on the pastures, all of which lowered crop yields and increased reliance on importing grain from overseas. Rising impoverishment and the pressure of limiting consumption contributed to the rise of Malthusian views of medieval society. They pushed the population into more significant conflict with the food supply by the mid-thirteenth century.
Some 62 individuals control as much capital as 50 percent of the world’s population today. This concentration of wealth is accelerating, partly because of technologies that intensify the race for resources, such as big nudging, citizen scores, and implants. These are just some ways that AI can manipulate people and companies in a race for power that could have profound implications for humanity’s future.