In a recent article entitled “The Human Promise of the AI Revolution,” the former President of Google China and current CEO of Sinovation Ventures, Kai-Fu Lee, says that artificial intelligence (AI) will radically disrupt the world of work, but the right policy choices can make it a force for a more compassionate social contract.
By now it’s become clear that AI is going to be a disruptive force. A lot of jobs in all colors of collars may not be safe (though some are, at least for now). The whole world of autonomous driving is one quick example, where increasingly AI and software are starting to have a big influence on how we get around. This is only the beginning.
Some are optimistic about AI’s promise of newer, better jobs that challenge our ingenuity and lead to bold new industries. Others, notably Tesla CEO Elon Musk among others, warn of dire and ominous consequences. Lee notes that the application of existing technology to new problems will hit many white-collar professionals just as hard as it hits blue-collar factory workers.
Lee is careful to point out AI’s strengths and weaknesses in order to propose those jobs that would be most affected. For instance, while AI is “great at optimizing for a highly narrow objective, it is unable to choose its own goals or think creatively.” AI may be superhuman in numbers and data, but it lacks social skills or empathy. Hence driving a car or diagnosing diseases across massive datasets that are incomprehensible to mere mortals may play to AI’s strengths — not to mention fast food cooks and insurance adjusters — but home care nurses, most attorneys, hairstylists and CEOs are probably safe for the foreseeable future.
Despite the challenges, Lee remains hopeful, as he sees an opportunity for us “to redirect our energy as a society to more human pursuits: to taking care of each other and our communities. While you can read his full thoughts in his book “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order,” or in The Wall Street Journal’s Sept 15th “Review” section, the gist of his thinking goes like this…
While some propose a Universal Basic Income (or UBI) as a possible cure to the massive job dislocations many see coming, Lee thinks otherwise. While UBI would provide a subsistence level of income for those so displaced (experiments with UBI are currently underway in several places around the world, with less than robust reviews it would appear), the very concept, says Lee, lacks the pride and dignity that work focused on enhancing our communities would provide instead.
So why not, in lieu of a UBI, create jobs (and pay people) instead? Maybe a different form of available guaranteed income? Lee proposes a kind of stipend, or what he calls the Social Investment Stipend, for those who devote themselves to three categories of labor: care work, community service and education.
Lee suggests these activities could form the core for a new social contract, and jobs would run the gamut from parenting and home schooling to assisting aging parents, or focusing on the efforts of non-profit and volunteer groups. Service efforts could include leading after-school programs, guiding tours at parks, or collecting oral histories from elders. Education activities could range from professional training for the jobs of the AI age to taking classes to turn a hobby into a career.
Lee admits many difficult questions remain. But at least he’s asking them… posing suggestions for the new work landscape, and trying to fashion a viable solution from the thorny issue of job displacement that may be harboring under the guise of technological advancement, modern times and the new age of artificial intelligence.
In other words, at least he’s trying to get us to think, and talk, about it.