Technology evangelists dream about a future where we’re all liberated from the more mundane aspects of our jobs by artificial intelligence. Other futurists go further, imagining AI will enable us to become superhuman, enhancing our intelligence, abandoning our mortal bodies, and uploading ourselves to the cloud.

Paradise is all very well, although your mileage may vary on whether these scenarios are realistic or desirable. The real question is, how do we get there?

Economist John Maynard Keynes notably argued in favor of active intervention when an economic crisis hits, rather than waiting for the markets to settle down to a more healthy equilibrium in the long run. His rebuttal to critics was, “In the long run, we are all dead.” After all, if it takes 50 years of upheaval and economic chaos for things to return to normality, there has been an immense amount of human suffering first.

Similar problems arise with the transition to a world where AI is intimately involved in our lives. In the long term, automation of labor might benefit the human species immensely. But in the short term, it has all kinds of potential pitfalls, especially in exacerbating inequality within societies where AI takes on a larger role. A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research has deep concerns about the future of work.

Uneven Distribution

While the report doesn’t foresee the same gloom and doom of mass unemployment that other commentators have considered, the concern is that the gains in productivity and economic benefits from AI will be unevenly distributed. In the UK, jobs that account for £290 billion worth of wages in today’s economy could potentially be automated with current technology. But these are disproportionately jobs held by people who are already suffering from social inequality.

Low-wage jobs are five times more likely to be automated than high-wage jobs. A greater proportion of jobs held by women are likely to be automated. The solution that’s often suggested is that people should simply “retrain”; but if no funding or assistance is provided, this burden is too much to bear. You can’t expect people to seamlessly transition from driving taxis to writing self-driving car software without help. As we have already seen, inequality is exacerbated when jobs that don’t require advanced education (even if they require a great deal of technical skill) are the first to go.

No Room for Beginners

Optimists say algorithms won’t replace humans, but will instead liberate us from the dull parts of our jobs. Lawyers used to have to spend hours trawling through case law to find legal precedents; now AI can identify the most relevant documents for them. Doctors no longer need to look through endless scans and perform diagnostic tests; machines can do this, leaving the decision-making to humans. This boosts productivity and provides invaluable tools for workers.

But there are issues with this rosy picture. If humans need to do less work, the economic incentive is for the boss to reduce their hours. Some of these “dull, routine” parts of the job were traditionally how people getting into the field learned the ropes: paralegals used to look through case law, but AI may render them obsolete. Even in the field of journalism, there’s now software that will rewrite press releases for publication, traditionally something close to an entry-level task. If there are no entry-level jobs, or if entry-level now requires years of training, the result is to exacerbate inequality and reduce social mobility.

Automating Our Biases

The adoption of algorithms into employment has already had negative impacts on equality. Cathy O’Neil, mathematics PhD from Harvard, raises these concerns in her excellent book Weapons of Math Destruction. She notes that algorithms designed by humans often encode the biases of that society, whether they’re racial or based on gender and sexuality.

Google’s search engine advertises more executive-level jobs to users it thinks are male. AI programs predict that black offenders are more likely to re-offend than white offenders; they receive correspondingly longer sentences. It needn’t necessarily be that bias has been actively programmed; perhaps the algorithms just learn from historical data, but this means they will perpetuate historical inequalities.

Take candidate-screening software HireVue, used by many major corporations to assess new employees. It analyzes “verbal and non-verbal cues” of candidates, comparing them to employees that historically did well. Either way, according to Cathy O’Neil, they are “using people’s fear and trust of mathematics to prevent them from asking questions.” With no transparency or understanding of how the algorithm generates its results, and no consensus over who’s responsible for the results, discrimination can occur automatically, on a massive scale.

Combine this with other demographic trends. In rich countries, people are living longer. An increasing burden will be placed on a shrinking tax base to support that elderly population. A recent study said that due to the accumulation of wealth in older generations, millennials stand to inherit more than any previous generation, but it won’t happen until they’re in their 60s. Meanwhile, those with savings and capital will benefit as the economy shifts: the stock market and GDP will grow, but wages and equality will fall, a situation that favors people who are already wealthy.

Even in the most dramatic AI scenarios, inequality is exacerbated. If someone develops a general intelligence that’s near-human or super-human, and they manage to control and monopolize it, they instantly become immensely wealthy and powerful. If the glorious technological future that Silicon Valley enthusiasts dream about is only going to serve to make the growing gaps wider and strengthen existing unfair power structures, is it something worth striving for?

What Makes a Utopia?

We urgently need to redefine our notion of progress. Philosophers worry about an AI that is misaligned—the things it seeks to maximize are not the things we want maximized. At the same time, we measure the development of our countries by GDP, not the quality of life of workers or the equality of opportunity in the society. Growing wealth with increased inequality is not progress.

Some people will take the position that there are always winners and losers in society, and that any attempt to redress the inequalities of our society will stifle economic growth and leave everyone worse off. Some will see this as an argument for a new economic model, based around universal basic income. Any moves towards this will need to take care that it’s affordable, sustainable, and doesn’t lead towards an entrenched two-tier society.

Walter Schiedel’s book The Great Leveller is a huge survey of inequality across all of human history, from the 21st century to prehistoric cave-dwellers. He argues that only revolutions, wars, and other catastrophes have historically reduced inequality: a perfect example is the Black Death in Europe, which (by reducing the population and therefore the labor supply that was available) increased wages and reduced inequality. Meanwhile, our solution to the financial crisis of 2007-8 may have only made the problem worse.

But in a world of nuclear weapons, of biowarfare, of cyberwarfare—a world of unprecedented, complex, distributed threats—the consequences of these “safety valves” could be worse than ever before. Inequality increases the risk of global catastrophe, and global catastrophes could scupper any progress towards the techno-utopia that the utopians dream of. And a society with entrenched inequality is no utopia at all.

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Thomas Hornigold is a physics student at the University of Oxford. When he's not geeking out about the Universe, he hosts a podcast, Physical Attraction, which explains physics - one chat-up line at a time.

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