Cooking the Books – Which way to AI?

‘Decide what you want from AI before it makes the decision for you’ was the title of an article by Erik Britton, billed as a financial consultant, in the Times (4 April).

‘One road,’ he wrote, ‘leads to human redundancy across large swathes of the labour market. Down that road, AI is a means of displacing labour, further and further up the value chain. That road leads to a weird and dystopian future where we no longer earn our living primarily through work.’

Most people wouldn’t find that ‘dystopian’. Britton went on to explain why he does:

‘What would remain of the economy were the value of labour reduced to zero? Ownership. Ownership of rights over property, including intellectual property, over profits, over weapons systems. Those that own will rule. Those that do not will be ruled: relegated, if we are lucky, to consumption of virtual worlds and food bought with state handouts, from a sofa that is owned by someone else’.

Well, yes, if you put it that way. A society where those who own rule is not very attractive. But it is not dystopian, it’s the reality today. Power is in the hands of those who own and control the productive resources of society, relegating the rest of us to sellers of our working abilities for a wage and only allowed to work if a profit can be made from what we produce.

According to Britton, ‘the balance against such a brutal distribution of power historically lay in ownership of our own labour.’ But that is precisely what is not the case today. He seems to be thinking of a situation like the sort that existed two or three hundred years ago in colonial New England, the nearest society has ever come to one where independent producers working on their own make and exchange the products of their labour with each other. But things have moved on since then and there is now production for profit by capitalist firms employing wage-labour. The process of production is no longer individual but collective, except that the collective labour of those who work is not owned by them. Labour today does not confer ownership.

The other road, says Britton, ‘is to use AI to enhance human labour and defend against excessive surveillance. This form of AI serves freedom, self-determination, and reward for effort and ingenuity. Down this road, the value of labour increases, and the balance of power between the owners of labour and personal data (that’s most of us) and the owners of property will shift towards labour.’

But will it? How would it? Presumably he is thinking that there will be more higher-paid jobs but that won’t shift the balance of power between ‘the owners of labour’ (the workers) and the owners of property (the capitalists). Those that own will still have the power to allow the rest of us to work, however much we are paid, only on condition that there is a profit for them.

Britton’s dystopia – in which there will be full automation but still owners and profits – will never come about. It wouldn’t be economically viable, not least because who’s going to buy what is produced and where would the state get the money to hand out to the proles?

The only road that will ensure that AI is used for the benefit of all is when society’s productive resources, of which AI is a part, are owned in common by society. People will still work, though not for wages; everyone has access to what they need to live and enjoy life, to what is collectively produced.

Next article: The long and the short of it ⮞

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