Automation, AI, and Why The Future Sometimes Scares Me

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I am a technologist, a futurist, and most of all, an optimist. This should come as no surprise. These are basically job requirements for venture capitalists. Still, even as someone who invests in “the future,” the future sometimes scares me.

Technology has mostly transformed our lives for the better. We can summon a driver, order a pizza, message mom, play Mario, listen to the Beatles, and look up the price of bitcoin all within the palm of our hand. Life has never been so convenient. More importantly, our quality of life overall has never been better. Many of history’s most devastating setbacks, from famine to plague, have largely been eliminated from most of the modern world. What a time to be alive.

But progress also has it’s sinister side. Automation and AI pose notable threats. Capitalists have argued for decades that automation wasn’t simply replacing blue-collar jobs, it was also freeing up the people in them to move into white-collar jobs. Technology doesn’t just destroy jobs, it also creates more jobs, they argued.

However, that may no longer be true. Blue collar and white collar jobs alike will likely be threatened by automation over the next few decades. Ignoring that possibility is not only naïve, but irresponsible. While technological advancements are creating an abundance of resources, they are simultaneously concentrating much of the wealth into the hands of a select few. Many of those that have not directly benefited have turned to populist leaders, whose rhetoric about “the forgotten” resonates with them. While Luddism is not the solution, if we continue this course, oblivious to these risks, the world will continue to become ever more divided.

Some have advocated for universal basic income (UBI), to provide a minimum level of income to serve as economic security for the masses. Sam Altman of Y Combinator is one of the more vocal members of our industry putting this proposal forth. UBI is certainly not a silver bullet, and the capitalist in me does cringe at the thought of too many government handouts. That said, UBI is at least one potential solution to our increasingly automated future.

An even more pessimistic view is to imagine a dystopian world of artificially intelligent overlords. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have been the public figures in our industry with the strongest opposing viewpoints. Elon has been ringing the alarm, while Zuckerberg has famously chatted to fans on a Facebook live stream, countering the negativity for an hour and a half while grilling meat on his BBQ.

AI will certainly change our world in profound ways, and mostly for the better. But I believe that Elon was right when he said that “AI is a rare case where we need to be proactive in regulation instead of reactive because if we’re reactive in AI regulation it’s too late.” I think the same goes for automation overall. We should continue to invest, and invest aggressively. At the same time, we need to be proactive, instead of reactive, in regards to the potential future that these technologies might create.

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