We should ponder the political impact of AI chatbot disruption
According to economists at Goldman Sachs, as many as 300 million jobs are likely to get automated away. A research paper published by Open AI, the startup that came up with ChatGPT, says that “19% of workers may see at least 50% of their tasks impacted”.
ChatGPT kind of technologies put the jobs of accountants, financial analysts, writers, journalists, public relation specialists, blockchain engineers, interpreters, etc, most at risk. At the same time, the jobs of cooks, dishwashers, carpenters, brickmasons, athletes, etc, are the least at risk.
These forecasts don’t take the political impact that this new technology is likely to have into account. In fact, this is not the first time that the fear of a new technology destroying jobs has arisen. In the UK, in the early 1800s, a new kind of power-loom threatened to destroy traditional weaving, leading weavers, who were skilled artisans, to protest.
Technology destroys existing jobs, but it also creates new ones. Let’s consider the horse which once was very important for transport. Its importance was destroyed by the invention of the automobile and railways. This destroyed the jobs of riders who rode horses between cities, riders who rode horse-drawn carriages within cities, farms which produced these horses, workshops which produced carriages and even individuals who cleaned horse manure left across city streets.
Nonetheless, new jobs were created in factories that produced railway carriages and automobiles and for drivers and loco-drivers who drove the new automobiles and trains. Also, the entire process of building railway tracks and national highways created a huge number of jobs.
Further, a new technology leads to the creation of other new technologies. As Martin Wolf writes in The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism: “Electricity brought refrigeration, the telephone, the skyscraper, air-conditioning and the early computer.” And this dynamic also creates more jobs.
But there is a flip side that isn’t often talked about: those whose jobs are destroyed by new technology may not always have the skills to take on the new jobs that technology creates. As Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo write in Good Economics for Hard Times: “Real blue-collar wages in Britain were almost halved between 1755 and 1802… They would recover their 1755 level only in 1820, sixty-five years later. The period of intense technological progress in the United Kingdom was also an era of intense deprivation and very difficult living conditions.” Clearly, while many gain from new technology, many don’t.
Now, how is all this relevant in the coming era of ChatGPT and other similar technologies? Firstly, up until now, new technologies have largely competed with the physical abilities of human beings. Automobiles, railways and aeroplanes made travel easier and faster in comparison with a horse ride, or a human walking for that matter. Running tap water saved women the trouble of going out of their homes to get supplies.
But this time, the situation is different. The impact of the spread of ChatGPT-like technologies is likely to be more on white-collar workers than manual ones. In fact, if one looks at the jobs at risk, most such jobs are white-collar jobs. These are workers who typically live and work in cities. Also, in the era of social media, such individuals are more vocal about their rights than others. And this is likely to have a political impact.
A good comparison here is the decline in manufacturing jobs through much of the Western world over the last few decades. As Wolf writes: “The dominant cause of decline in the share of industry in employment has been rising productivity,” implying that better technology can now produce more economic output than in the past, leading to fewer men being required in the manufacturing sector. Of course, other than better technology, a lot of manufacturing has simply moved to China and elsewhere.
In the process, the economies of many small cities and towns in the US, which ran around manufacturing, were destroyed. This also destroyed the sense of self of many individuals who used to work in these factories, other than destroying them financially. Indeed, after their jobs were destroyed, they saw the fat cats of Wall Street being rescued by different governments in the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis. This anger of feeling left out finally led to the rise of leaders like Donald Trump, who had great support across small towns and rural America.
The larger point here is that when the first wave of technology started destroying jobs throughout much of the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries, democracy wasn’t very strong, with only a limited number of men who had a few assets having the right to vote.
That is not the case now. Any new technology that leads to a massive job destruction is bound to lead to protests and is likely to have electoral repercussions. In such a scenario, the situation is bound to turn political. Politicians can easily slow down the development and spread of this new technology. And that’s something worth thinking about.
Vivek Kaul is the author of ‘Bad Money’.
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