In one of my previous posts titled “How AI Will Reorganize Society” I outlined a rather alarming scenario where AI, and automation in general, could lead to an extremely unequal society.
I likened it to the situation in the movie Elysium where a few privileged people live in an affluent “bubble” far removed from reality and everyone else lives a terrible life of poverty and squalor.
I drew a graph to show how the class hierarchy in such a scenario might look. The graph uses the tongue-in-cheek but insightful terms “Sociopaths”, “Clueless”, and “Losers” for the Upper class, Middle class, and Lower class respectively. And AI occupies the middle section of the Clueless class.
Potential Class Hierarchy in Our Technology-Dominated Future (Image credit: Vin Bhalerao)
In the post after that, titled “How to Prevent Extreme Inequality That Could Be Caused by AI”, I sketched out a few ideas to prevent the Elysium scenario from occurring. These included things like Universal Basic Income (UBI), Universal Basic iNvestment (UBN), and Universal Basic Payment (UBP).
In that post, I also pointed out the similarity between the class hierarchy picture above and the shape formed by water when a rock is dropped in it. I called it a “Liquid Pyramid” since it is basically trying to be a pyramid, but due to the high fluidity of water, creates a stretched shape, with a bubble on top.
The similarity between the two pictures goes a lot deeper than just appearances. This is because the society of the future could be extremely dynamic and fluid just like water, due to accelerating innovation and rapid changes as a result of AI and other technologies.
This actually suggests some very intriguing possibilities that I am going to expand upon in this post.
Time to Aim Higher!
I am going to claim that we can actually aim higher than simply “preventing problems” that could be created by AI. We can envision a scenario where AI can actually be used to create a far more naturally empathetic, creative, and fairer society.
This might sound a lot more utopian than what I am usually comfortable writing about. But I think it is within the realm of possibility — certainly not needing any further stretches of imagination than needed for many of the dire depictions of the future that have become popular, such as those in the movies Elysium or Terminator or the thought experiment known as the Paperclip Maximizer.
Let’s dive in then.
Would a highly dynamic and fluid society necessarily become more empathetic?
As I explained in my previous post mentioned above, the society of the future is likely to be very dynamic due to the constant innovation and disruption in various parts of the economy.
Instead of the simple picture of a stone being dropped into water, it could look more like a lake in a hailstorm — with tons of hailstones hitting the water everywhere, each one temporarily forming a liquid pyramid.
In addition, it is likely that each time such a liquid pyramid forms, some of the Losers will manage to get into the Sociopath class or the Clueless class. And vice versa, for all the three layers. Both, rags to riches and riches to rags stories could become quite commonplace.
In other words, the class hierarchy in such a society can become a lot more fluid than today and class mobility can be high.
In the past, societies used to be very rigid and slow moving — resembling molasses rather than water. In those times, the pyramids would be more like regular stable pyramids. They would form slowly, last much longer, and there would be very little movement among classes. This would mean that most people would probably be born in one class and die in the same one.
But if the society of the future becomes a lot more fluid and dynamic, with liquid pyramids forming everywhere all the time, as I expect it would, then it would be possible for more and more people to go up or down the class hierarchy during their lifetimes.
Many may even get to experience the whole cycle of going all the way up and then down multiple times. Or know close friends and relatives who did.
This may not happen to all of them, but could happen to a large section of society. This could lead to an unexpected result: a more empathetic society!
Since a much larger percentage of the population in such a society may experience class transitions or know someone close who did, they might actually start to develop empathy for people in other levels. This is not because they would become more sensitive, which is unlikely, but because they may have experienced it personally or been close to someone who did.
If this happens, then it might ever so slightly change their political and social behavior. Maybe not all of them, but in sufficiently larger numbers than today to make a real impact.
This is essentially what happens when people move from isolated communities to cities today. People become a lot more open minded and empathetic, by and large, because they have a much wider range of interactions with people of various types. So there is a very good precedent for this phenomenon.
Resolving Any Lingering Doubts
I realize that this is starting to sound quite utopian, and I am myself always circumspect about such visions. So, for my own satisfaction, I am going to list a few more factors that might help.
- In the three mechanisms of wealth redistribution that I outlined, (UBI, UBN, and UBP), I believe I have provided options that might work in socialistic as well as capitalistic societies. Wealth redistribution, particularly in a dynamic and fluid society, is a natural economic process, not necessarily a political one.
- Note that I am not saying that all the pyramids may be liquid like water. Some may be a little more viscous and may not flatten out completely. But we only need a significant portion of them to be liquid like water in order to achieve significant social and economic change.
- Since AI and automation will lower costs of goods and services of all kinds, even drastically so in many cases, it should be possible for most people at the bottom layer to attain a decent standard of living on a relatively small sum of money. We only need a small percentage of the wealth at the top to get redistributed via such mechanisms.
- On the other hand, the economy is likely to be much larger as a result of the same technologies. (Enriching the economy is one of the primary reasons why we build technology!) As a result, the fraction of money that needs to be redistributed would be even smaller. One could really think of it as an insurance premium against social unrest.
- Ultimately, let us not forget why we keep innovating in technologies such as AI. We do it not just for economic reasons like lowering costs and enriching the economy, but also because it increases our speed and reach, reduces drudgery, improves safety, and generally improves human lives, both at work and at home. All of these things are very desirable independently of their economic effects, as long as we are smart about managing their risks.
Correlation between wealth and happiness
Another important point that needs to be mentioned here is that various studies have shown that the relationship between wealth and happiness is not a straight line.
Initially, when a person starts from no wealth at all, their happiness rises rapidly along with their wealth. But, as the person goes through successive stages of achieving basic survival, then comfort, then luxury, and then power, most peoples’ happiness levels start to saturate.
Then it’s a matter of marginal utility — every little increment in happiness requires a larger and larger increase in wealth, entailing more and more work and stress.
Relationship between wealth and happiness (Image: Vin Bhalerao)
Typically, when people reach the point of diminishing marginal utility, they start wondering if the additional hard work and stress is worth it. They start valuing other factors such as health, time, family, community, and the environment higher than just the pursuit of more wealth. And many of those factors require a healthy and peaceful world to live in.
In the Elysium scenario, even the rich have to be constantly worried and wary because they realize how precarious their situation is and how much devastation it is causing elsewhere. If they can spare a little change to keep things more peaceful and happy everywhere, it definitely sounds like a good idea.
So this again lends more weight to the argument that the rational thing for most people even in the so called “Sociopaths” category would be to start sharing some of their wealth, thus defying their negative label.
To stress this point further, I would even re-label the entire class hierarchy chart as follows.
Life Experience Cycle of the Future
Instead of “class hierarchy”, I am going to call it “life experience cycle” to indicate that they don’t refer to static classes that people are stuck in, but to a cycle of temporary experiences that people can expect to have during their lifetimes.
Life Experience Cycle of the Future (Image credit: Vin Bhalerao)
- Most people (i.e. those at the bottom) can expect to spend most of their time experiencing “continuous learning and creativity”. They would be able to support themselves at a basic level due to one of the wealth redistribution schemes, sweetened by the low cost of living enabled via automation.
- Most people probably wouldn’t have stable or long term “jobs”, they would more likely be working gigs, which occasionally coalesce into projects.
- Occasionally, one of the gigs or projects they are working on might manage to get some traction.
- At that point, AI / automation can help them scale the project up and far and wide.
- Then it is possible that their project may hit its stride.
- A few of such projects might go viral or get close to it. (By viral I don’t mean just in the social media sense, but just extremely successful.)
- Of course, none of these experiences except “continuous learning and creativity” would last very long. And even that one would not last their entire lives. Traction and even virality may happen often enough to them or people they know that it keeps their motivation level high. (This again is a result of the highly dynamic and fluid society.)
- All of this means that most people can expect to go through all the life experiences in the chart at least once in their lifetimes. Hence the title, “life experience cycle”.
It is not a coincidence that the picture above resembles a vibrant startup economy or maker / creative economy or even a bazaar with everyone constantly learning and experimenting with something, occasionally getting traction, then scaling it up, and, if lucky, going viral for a bit, before returning back down.
Such economies are both, the enablers of this type of society, as well as acting as their prototype. Such economies have already existed for a while, in many places, and are already in the process of being scaled worldwide. They could eventually encompass all of society.
What I am trying to say is that none of this is as utopian as it may sound at first reading. In many ways, it is already occurring.
All of these things together make me think that this seemingly utopian idea could actually work! It may already be on its way.
None of this is certain, of course. There are a lot of ifs and buts. And this may be just one of the possible scenarios. I haven’t even touched here on the other possibilities, such as the space race or the biotech revolution or the network state or even the metaverse. (Well, I have written about a futuristic scenario involving the metaverse before. Check it out if you want to follow that angle.)
My main reason for talking about these ideas is that they describe a far better, yet realistic, future to aim for than many of the alternatives being discussed elsewhere.
Most of popular media has been busy conjuring up dystopias (such as Elysium or Terminator or Black Mirror and what not.) — to the point that some people are even thinking of somehow reversing the march of technology, which makes no sense. (We will just build it up all again, maybe with different benefits and mistakes!)
Bottom line, our future with AI and automation can turn out to be a very interesting and hopeful ride, as long as we are smart and careful about it. It’s a challenge we should be thankful for.