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A society built on artificial intelligence

UTOPI OR FUTURE / Is artificial intelligence and automation a rescue or a threat to society?


It is more than 500 years since Sir Thomas Moore found inspiration for the book Utopia while strolling around Antwerp. In May, I even traveled from Dubai to the Belgian city to give an Artificial Intelligence (AI) lecture and couldn't help but draw the parallel to Utopiacharacter Raphael Hythloday, who in the 1500 century entertains two Englishmen with tales of a better world.

Dubai has got the world's first minister of artificial intelligence in addition to museums, academies and foundations dedicated to future studies and have embarked on their own Hythloday-like journey. While European countries have generally become more anxious about how technological advances can threaten jobs, the United Arab Emirates has enthusiastically embraced the labor-saving potential inherent in artificial intelligence and automation.

Arab cultures see work as something one does to be able to live; one does not live to work

There are practical reasons for this. There is an imbalance between local and imported labor in the Gulf states, with local labor accounting for 67 percent in Saudi Arabia, but only 11 percent in the United Arab Emirates. Since the region's desert landscape is not sustainable for further population growth, the possibility of replacing human labor with machines is very attractive.

But there is also a deeper cultural difference. Unlike Western Europe, where the industrial revolution and the "Protestant work ethic" saw its light, Arab cultures see work as something one does to live; one does not live to work. Such attitudes are not particularly compatible with economic systems that require more and more productivity out of workers, but they fit well into an era of artificial intelligence and automation.

Social contract

In the industrialized West, technology threatens the social contract that has relied on the three pillars of capital, labor and state. For centuries, capital has enabled investment in machinery; workers have operated the machines and manufactured goods and services, and the state has collected taxes and redistributed resources as needed. But this division of labor has created a society that is more complicated than in Arab countries and non-industrialized economies.

Arab states have nationalized natural resources, taken leadership of large-scale industry, conducted international trade and distributed profits to society. Until recently, population growth and lower incomes from natural resources were a threat to the social contract. But with technology that can produce and distribute the goods and services a leisure-oriented society requires, the social contract can actually be improved.

In the West, the technological revolution has apparently increased the social differences between those who have capital and the rest of the population. Although productivity has increased, workers' share of income has declined. In addition to the capital owners, a leisure-oriented class of wealthy heirs and other wealthy have secured a significant part of the profits created using productivity-enhancing technology. The big losers are those with low income and low education.

Nevertheless, it is short-term to focus on the effect that technology (and AI) has on the relationship between capital and labor. After all, populism has increased in many Western countries, at a time of historically low unemployment. Today's dissatisfaction is an expression of a desire for a better quality of life, not more work. The Yellow West in France initially protested against a policy that would increase spending; The British, who voted to leave the EU, hoped that the money spent in the union would be redistributed to their home country. Much of the rhetoric surrounding anti-globalization and opposition to immigration is due to fears of crime, cultural change and issues of quality of life – not jobs.

The problem is that in the Western social contract, a desire for more free time will be impossible to fulfill. Voters want higher incomes and shorter working hours, and they expect the state to receive enough tax money to provide pensions, education and health. It is no wonder that Western policy has ended up in a dead end.

Larger state

Artificial intelligence and computer-driven innovation can be a way out of the dead end. In what may be perceived as a kind of artificial intelligence utopia, paradoxically a larger state will be compatible with a lower budget, since the government will have tools and instruments to increase the supply of public services and goods at very low costs.

The biggest obstacle will be cultural: As early as 1948, the German philosopher Joseph Pieper warned against the "proletarianization" of the people and believed that leisure should be the cornerstone of culture. Workers in the West must reject their obsession with work ethic and their deep resentment over welfare parasites. They must begin to distinguish between work that is necessary to have a dignified life and work that is oriented towards status and the acquisition of wealth.

In an artificial intelligence utopia, state interference will be the norm and privately owned production the exception.

With the right attitude, all societies will be able to sign a new social contract based on artificial intelligence, where the state takes a larger share of the profits and distributes this to the inhabitants. State-owned machines will be able to produce a large proportion of goods and services, from medicines and food to clothing and housing, transport and research.

Some will see this as a state interference in the market mechanisms, others will worry about whether the state will be able to meet the people's demands for various goods and services. But such arguments are short-sighted. The pace of development of artificial intelligence and automation combined with state-owned production units that operate uninterruptedly, together will provide an almost unlimited supply capacity. The only limitation will be the natural resources, but this limitation will drive technological development in a more sustainable direction.

In an artificial intelligence utopia, state interference will be the norm, and privately owned production the exception. The private sector will act as a corrective support when the state or community fails, as opposed to the state having to intervene when the market fails.

Imagine traveling to the future, to 2071 and the anniversary of the United Arab Emirates: A future Raphael Hythloday from Dubai visits Antwerp and says the following: Where I live, the state owns and operates all the machines that produce the most necessary goods and services . It allows people to spend their time on hobbies, creative or spiritual pursuits. Any worry about work and taxes is a thing of the past. You can also have such a world.

©Project Syndicate, 2019
Translated by Iril Kolle
Mahroum is director of strategy and research at The Dubai Future Foundation and fellow at The Lisbon Council. He has written the book Black Swan Start-Ups: Understanding the Rise of Successful Technology in Unlikely places.

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