Future Building Technology

Who does AI work for?

Liked Will A.I. Become the New McKinsey? by Ted Chiang (The New Yorker)

If we cannot come up with ways for A.I. to reduce the concentration of wealth, then I’d say it’s hard to argue that A.I. is a neutral technology, let alone a beneficial one.

Today, we find ourselves in a situation in which technology has become conflated with capitalism, which has in turn become conflated with the very notion of progress. If you try to criticize capitalism, you are accused of opposing both technology and progress. But what does progress even mean, if it doesn’t include better lives for people who work?

Talking about AI is talking about the future of work is talking about the future of society.

The tendency to think of A.I. as a magical problem solver is indicative of a desire to avoid the hard work that building a better world requires. That hard work will involve things like addressing wealth inequality and taming capitalism. For technologists, the hardest work of all—the task that they most want to avoid—will be questioning the assumption that more technology is always better, and the belief that they can continue with business as usual and everything will simply work itself out.

Callback to the old dude trashing on Timnit for focusing on AI’s current negative impacts and biases over the risk of AGI 🙄 Meredith Whittaker says about him: “I think it’s stunning that someone would say that the harms [from AI] that are happening now—which are felt most acutely by people who have been historically minoritized: Black people, women, disabled people, precarious workers, et cetera—that those harms aren’t existential.”

Is there a way for A.I. to do something other than sharpen the knife blade of capitalism? Just to be clear, when I refer to capitalism, I’m not talking about the exchange of goods or services for prices determined by a market, which is a property of many economic systems. When I refer to capitalism, I’m talking about a specific relationship between capital and labor, in which private individuals who have money are able to profit off the effort of others. So, in the context of this discussion, whenever I criticize capitalism, I’m not criticizing the idea of selling things; I’m criticizing the idea that people who have lots of money get to wield power over people who actually work. And, more specifically, I’m criticizing the ever-growing concentration of wealth among an ever-smaller number of people, which may or may not be an intrinsic property of capitalism but which absolutely characterizes capitalism as it is practiced today.

☝️ (This is what I’m talking about when I’m talking about capitalism.)

My fear is that AI will only amplify the inequalities that already exist because workers have no protections and shareholders demand astronomical profits. And I think it’s short-sighted.

I like Max Read’s take on the writer’s strike, which touches on AI: “…I think a clear win for writers could go a long way to putting the entertainment industry on more stable footing, too. My simple, stupid logic is this: If we stop studios and streamers from exploiting writers (and actors, and directors, and below-the-line crew), we will in so doing force them to come up with business plans beyond “exploit the workers more until the numbers make sense.”” If replacing workers isn’t the goal, there could be more thought given to whether AI could be helpful in any way as a tool. (I’m not sold but maybe 🤷‍♀️)

Ted Chiang references the Luddites in his piece, echoing Cory Doctorow in highlighting that Luddites thought from the labor side, and fought the capitalists who sought to pay workers less and exploit children: “The Luddites did what every science fiction writer does: they took a technology and imagined all the different ways it could be used – who it could be used for and whom it could be used against. They demanded the creation of a parallel universe in which the left fork was taken, rather than the right.” “The difference between de-skilling and democratizing isn’t what the gadget does – it’s who it does it for and who it does it to.”

If AI truly becomes such a time-saver, how about companies paying workers the same for 30-hour weeks (which have been found in study after study to be effective anyway 🤔)? If they won’t pay workers in money, at least pay us in time. Or how about starting UBI now, in concert with adoption of AI tools, instead of waiting for the suffering to get too bad?

(Instead, Microsoft threw ten billion bucks into Open AI then laid off ten thousand workers, including my husband. Forgive me if I’m a bit salty about corporate priorities atm 🙄)

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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