Thursday, May 09, 2024

Work, Wealth, and Artificial Intelligence

    Thursday, May 09, 2024   No comments

With every human adoption of a new tool, fear about the future of humanity follows. Many of these adoptions are profoundly justified. The development of nuclear weapons, for instance, raised and continue to raise fear among reasonable people: How can we justify that development of such weapon that would allow some of us to discriminately kill not just humans but living beings on the face of the planet with just few weapons? The development and deployment of gun powder nearly annihilated entire populations. The development of the wheel and modern transportation systems enabled some peoples to overtake distant lands and destroy indigenous communities across the globe and enslave human beings and sell them continents away. All these new tools and systems allowed those in power to do more with less, to earn more with few resources; that is to avoid work themselves through the deployment of tools and the exploitation of other humans and animals. In short, humans drive for developing new tools can be explained by their desire to avoid work that they must do themselves. The development of the emerging Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology exemplifies the desire for bypassing work and the anxiety of losing work. 


To understand the emerging threat and opportunity of AI, news media outlets called on persons who built wealth to share their insight. One of the richest individuals in the world who built his massive wealth by investing “cash” in the businesses that does work without doing work himself, Warren Buffett, weighed in: AI “can create an enormous amount of leisure time,” Buffett said. That opinion suggests that with AI taking over many tasks humans use to do, people will be freed to “leisure” stuff. That conclusion has never been proven correct following every major human adoption of transformative tools.


To support his view, Buffett referenced theories of John Maynard Keynes, “one of the most important economic thinkers of the modern era, who correctly predicted output per capita would grow at an exponential rate, but failed to predict what humans would do with increased productivity.”


Here, Buffett unknowingly weaken his argument: he confused “increased productivity” with the theory that increased productivity will allow humans to work less and have more “leisure time”. That hypothesis cannot be supported by the data. In the US, for example, where machination of work has led to astounding levels of increased output, workers, can barely afford days, not weeks, of vacation time, let alone family time.


Keynes, whose work is recommended for summer read by Buffett, did not seem to believe that adoption of new tools will allow human workers to take time off or find less demanding work to do.  Keynes seemed to recognize the destabilizing effects of new technologies on the workforce and society in general, which made him a strong promoter of “government intervention through social and job programs in order to stabilize economics” as he argued in his books “The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money”.


Government (State) intervention in economic life is not a modern phenomenon. The eminent historian and Islamic economic philosopher, Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun, underscored the function of the State in creating global markets. Writing six hundred years ago, Ibn Khaldun argued that “work becomes the only store of value, represented by the temporal intensity (time) and level of diversification and sophistication of work (skill; expertise).” However, how work is rewarded and valued, in the view of Ibn Khaldun, is dependent on the existence and undertakings of the State (dawla), “the force that can secure, redistribute, and grow wealth (amwal).”  He summarizes this paradigm this way: “Power and State produce the market of the world.’ [al-Sultan wa-a'-dawla suq li-'l-alam; al-dawla hiya al-suq al-aazam] (Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima). 


Taking human knowledge on work and wealth, and the systems that govern work and the production of wealth, from centuries passed, not just a mere 200 years, one can appreciate the persistent need to appreciate Work, not just as an activity that humans must do to subsist, but as a human and societal function that must be systematized.



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