Smart Machines Are in Our Future, Whether We Like It Or Not

As the world becomes more complex, it rewards people who can deal effectively with complexity. So does this mean that income inequality is inevitably going to increase, as highly-educated elites gain a bigger and bigger advantage over the less educated? Ryan Avent, responding to Brink Lindsey’s new ebook, Human Capitalism, isn’t so sure. After all, the Industrial Revolution produced such high economic growth that even as less skilled workers replaced artisans, they ended up earning more money:

Now it could be the case that that era was the abberration and the more recent period of rising skill premiums and increased inequality the norm. But it’s also possible that just as an earlier era of rising complexity erased the premiums earned by skilled craftsmen and transferred them to human cogs, a new period of innovation in machine thinking could wipe away the premium now commanded by many of today’s craftsmen—doctors, lawyers, designers, engineers, and so on—and reallocate the gains to the hoi polloi.

It seems to me that the nature of the complementarities between human workers and an enormously complex economy are incredibly uncertain and difficult to predict. I also imagine there are many possible equilibria out there, and that which of those obtain is not unrelated to things like bargaining power. So while I endorse many of Mr Lindsey’s conclusions and policy recommendations, which include things like a focus on early childhood education, I’m less sure that past economic performance is indicative of future results.

I agree, especially with Ryan’s point that there’s a very high level of uncertainty about how this will play out. In fact, I’m mainly linking to this for exactly that reason: because I believe it’s something that deserves a lot of thought. Regardless of whether or not true artificial intelligence is in our near future, computer automation is bound to increase significantly, and in labor markets this is almost certain to shift even more bargaining power toward the owners of capital (who will own the machines) and away from unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

At least, that’s probably what will happen by default. If we don’t want it to happen, we’re going to have to think long and hard about how to stop it.