The threats of generative AI


In case you might have missed it, digital space cowboy Elon Musk made a noteworthy declaration earlier this month in a visit to the United Kingdom. During a meeting with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the tech billionaire predicted that artificial intelligence will eventually create a labor force reality where “no job is needed.” And if that weren’t enough, he went on to say that AI could become “the most disruptive force in history.” So, is Elon Musk just a science fiction gearhead or is he on to something that we need to understand and if necessary, get ahead of?

Symptoms of this prediction are already extant, but do those indications mean the end of work is a foregone conclusion?

Large farms in America and elsewhere in the world have become increasingly automated. Driverless tractors GPS their way over hill and dale with efficiency and reliability. Is anyone else noticing that the number of checkout lines are diminishing while automated checkouts are expanding? Recently reported in Time Magazine, law firms are starting to embrace AI. One lawyer wrote, “AI is going to revolutionize the practice of law, replacing tedious work and allowing lawyers to use their bandwidth for more creative and specialized matters.” There’s a shortage of lawyers and paralegals as it is, so maybe they’re on to something.

Driverless cars and taxis are just around the bend. AI’s impact on the delivery of medicine is already in the headlines because digital information systems have the capacity to conflate a wide-ranging and complex array of symptoms with diseases, outperforming even the smartest doctors. But who’s going to fix my toilet when it backs up? Robbie the robot?

Decrypt Media, an independent media group that focuses on the evolution of technology, claims that AI can disrupt and even transform a number of different industries that will likely lead to a large-scale shift in how humans think of work. They report that, “Since 2000, it is estimated that automation systems have eliminated 1.7 million manufacturing jobs.” Yet they also report that AI will bring about new AI-related jobs too.

Musk has suggested that AI can lead to a utopian world where no one needs to work, and everyone is paid a “universally high income.” The dangers inherent in this kind of Star Trek-ish, AI final-frontier scenario is worth exploring just a bit further. It’s a given that artificial intelligence already has a global presence. It’s also a fact that many of AI’s best-known researchers and entrepreneurs have expressed deep concerns over the potential human impact of generative AI, that is, AI that learns from consuming vast amounts of current data to generate new output or content.

Imagine for a moment Elon Musk’s utopian world where most people don’t have work to do. Are we imagining a technological utopia of concentrated boredom? If we have concerns today about the rise in mental illness, what kinds of personality, mood and anxiety disorders can we expect in the utopian tedium of 2080? A surge in suicides?

Will this brave new world of AI be a world without doctors, teachers, waitresses, retail workers, manufacturing workers, warehouse workers, and customer service employees? If so, who wants to sign up? Can you play golf 365 days a year? While some may think I’m carrying this case to an extreme, Elon Musk’s crystal ball gets increasingly clear. This may well be our future.

Recent Gallup polling showed that 20% of Americans unemployed for at least a year reported being depressed, double that of those employed. The Atlantic magazine, in an article on the possible effects of a work-free world, reported that, “Some research suggests that the explanation for rising rates of mortality, mental-health problems, and addiction among poorly-educated, middle-aged people is a shortage of well-paid jobs. Another study shows that people are often happier at work than in their free time. Perhaps this is why many worry about the agonizing dullness of a jobless future.”

Technology is a juggernaut, and when driven by profit incentives, it’s hard to slow down its development enough to build guardrails around its potential pernicious effects while preserving its bountiful effects. But for me, it all boils down to what I consider to be a generally accepted psychological fact, that work gives people a meaningful sense of purpose in life. Yes, people will often complain about work circumstances, but on the whole people who are working are happier than people who are unemployed. There’s nothing more depressing than an overwhelming sense of purposelessness.

There are those, of course, who say a world without work will just cause people to more thoroughly engage in the arts, explore the environment and do more things with friends… in other words become more social.

Guardian journalist Caroline Davis recently put this viewpoint into historical perspective: “Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (19th century) thought hard work the refuge of those with nothing better to do while he envisaged a society of “cultivated leisure” as machines performed the necessary and unpleasant tasks. Karl Marx’s dream (20th century) was of a society-regulated general production that allowed liberated workers to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner’ without the drudgery of being tied to one job.”

Whether we wind up in utopia, dystopia or something in between, be careful what you wish for. Instead, in all seriousness, we need to plan for a future where artificial intelligence may be one of the most disruptive forces in human history. It’s moving fast. Personally, professionally and policywise, we need to make sure we are ahead of the arc of this force, not behind it and subject to its passing turbulence.

Postscript: Sam Altman: “The global face of AI” and CEO of Open AI, the company that introduced ChatGPT this year, was fired last week. Some say it was because he wasn’t concerned enough about the threats of generative AI. Whatever, it was a stunning move by the company’s board. Hmm… the end of work for Sam?

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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