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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking

AI: THE SOCIAL IMPACT

2017-01-22 22:40

Cathryn Barnard

Blog, FUTURE OF WORK, EMPLOYMENT, SOCIAL IMPACT,

AI: THE SOCIAL IMPACT

I’m a great supporter of new and emerging technology; technology that’s designed to solve problems and make our lives easier. At a most rudimentary level, this

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I’m a great supporter of new and emerging technology; technology that’s designed to solve problems and make our lives easier. At a most rudimentary level, this morning as I was helping my (school-phobic) 10-year-old with a history project, I remarked upon the amazingness of MS word to spell-check and to store all previously misspelt words to autocorrect for future reference. A miniscule yet significant example of machine learning. The potential that machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have is seismic - complex computer systems with the potential to not only take over, but vastly improve upon repetitive tasks, will dramatically transform the way we live and work, in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Yet, these transformations are not without risk. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has already very succinctly written about the ethical challenges faced by society in the wake of intelligent machine systems revolutionising the way we work. It uses driverless trucks as an example and suggests that millions of jobs could be wiped out in the US alone, if this technology goes mainstream. It suggests that the benefits of self-driving trucks (improved safety, faster transfer times etc.) could mitigate the social impact.

But surely it is precisely this social impact that is feeding the leaning towards right-wing populism that we have seen emerging both here in the UK, in the US and across Europe in recent times. Some journalists have suggested that pro-Brexit and pro-Trump support has come from communities already let down by governments who have failed to address unemployment and left swathes of society dependent on benefits that barely cover the cost of living. We’re seeing increased usage of the term "precariat" in our journalistic commentaries - precariat defined as being "a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare." (Source: Wikipedia).

If we take away an individual’s ability to work, by replacing their job function with a complex computer system, we are, I fear, in turn taking away their sense of identity, and their sense of belonging. This is an innate need that we have as human beings, and without a sense of purpose, I worry that we risk imposing significant psychological damage which is not without its risks to society.

I know there is increasing debate globally around universal income, what that might look like and how it could be implemented, but at its most basic level (and I am very far from being any kind of economics expert), I wonder where the revenues will come from to provide this, if there are no incomes to tax. It strikes me that we are in grave danger of widening the gap still further between the "haves" (those who create, design and implement these new and complex technologies) and the "have-nots" (those whose future earning potential is de-railed by said technologies).

Perhaps I’m too optimistic (my go-to mode is as a ’glass-half-full’ person!), but I very much hope that the potential for social harm caused by the widespread uptake of these technologies will be mitigated by social thinkers (and eventually social policy) so that we might find a happy balance between great technology and social impact. This is very much at the heart of what we at Working the Future are trying to encourage.

 

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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our latest Foresight Focus report.

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