The Economy 2049

Editorial, 21st March 2018

Economies across the world are engaged in the production of goods and services. But what matters more than what they produce is, how they produce it. Big plantations might be a great business venture for the plantation owners, but not so for the slaves toiling there. Likewise, a Lord of the Manor would be quite content as long as the peasants, though discontent, would continue working for him. It is the economic system which not only shapes the economy but also the society and its social order as a whole.
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, economic systems prevalent in the world have majorly revolved around three ideas—communism, socialism, and capitalism. Communism encompasses an economic system with common ownership of the means of production, devoid of class division or government intervention, while its precursor, socialism, grounds its basis on the social ownership of the means of production, similar to ownership by the government or by cooperatives. The aforementioned are umbrella terms referring to two left-wing schools of economic thought; both opposing capitalism.
The leading edge economic system of the current world, capitalism, believes in the private ownership of means of production. The owners keep the complete profit while the workers have to satiate with their foredestined wages, thus, leading to the creation of economic classes. An extreme form of this economy would constitute no public facilities such as schools, roads and highways, social security benefits, etc. Although the various Marxian economic systems run on different parallels, they all have two components in common—the proletariat (the workers) and the bourgeoisie (the owners). What economic system would be there if we remove one component or replace them with AI?
The developments in the field of AI have raised this question lately, repeating the history of Industrial Revolution of the 18th century when automation in farming and factories took away the mechanical jobs of people, forcing them to take up more intelligent jobs as the machines could do the mechanical work. An inherent question that raises here is whether machines can take away the intelligent jobs as well.
Even under the most optimistic scenario, machines taking up most of the jobs that humans do seems far-fetched. While, in the near future, artificial intelligence can easily replace us in doing repetitive tasks like driving a car or interpreting text, not many jobs are limited to these skills. There are still innate qualities required for decision making, like intuition, in which humans themselves can hardly be trained, leave aside machines. A more realistic scenario would be the one in which humans will work in tandem with machines, with the latter covering up the repetitive tasks and humans contributing with their decision making skills.
Even if machines take up all (or most) of the intelligent jobs, a new set of jobs might come up—emotional jobs—which require human emotional connections. Jobs which require more of the stereotypical ‘artistic’ skills may rise in prominence—more Shakespeares, Tolstoys, Beethovens, and Picassos will be promoted.
To capture and portray emotions of something, one has to be in the shoes of other; but machines, however skillful, can never be human. They will lack artistic sense, at least, for a very long time. The world will be a place with more writers, designers, painters, comedians, dramatists, musicians, dancers, chefs, photographers, and what not? But with the recent developments in AI, like the humanoid chatbot Sophie, we expect to see versatile intelligent machines with subtle emotions and a brilliant ‘artistic’ sense in the future. With art being quite subjective, this will surely be the last field in which machines may surpass our skills.
But what about the economic system? Initially (and for quite a long time), it seems that capitalism may grow and reach its peak. The owners of the means of production (the bourgeoisie) will be simply replacing the human workers with intelligent machines, thereby, escalating efficiency and with it, unemployment. This way, they will keep all the profit generated and that too with fewer people to pay wages to, leading to extreme economic disparities between the rich and the poor—all characteristics of a capitalist economy. A rather distant yet interesting possibility raises in the case of the Ray Kurzweilian future with technological singularity. With the advent of super-intelligence (intelligence which can improve upon itself), it is likely that the jobs of the owners (the bourgeoisie) will eventually be transferred to artificial intelligence rendering nearly everybody effectively jobless.
With this, might come the sunset of capitalism—everybody is as jobless as everyone else, killing economic disparities. Even with artistic jobs, everyone will be their own master without any distinction between owners and workers. As everybody will be on an equal footing, with equal opportunities in life and no private ownership of means of production (AI has taken over it all), the communist dream might be realised. There would be no class divisions and the concept of money might fail (as most are not earning any) or at least the concept of Universal Basic Income coming to reality. We would effectively be using resources just according to our need. All characteristics of a communist economy.
But a question arises here—is this really a communist scenario? Humans might be writing letters, creating paintings, composing songs, performing plays, or just doing nothing, but, they would just be parasitically dependent on AI to generate essential resources for them to use. We would be like animals—no intelligent work to do, just using the available resources in accord with our greed and might. We would have all our time for leisure, as much economic equality as we can have, but, that wouldn’t be capitalist or even communist in its truest sense. It would be like getting equality by dying—everyone is equal when everyone is dead. Other possibilities are also equally likely—there might be no economic system at all or there might be a very new concept developed by those sentient machines. Who knows what AI might have in store for us?