May 01, 2023
We have long known that people in policy debates have difficulty with arithmetic and basic logic. We got yet another example today in the New York Times.
The NYT profiled Geoffrey Hinton, who recently resigned as head of AI technology at Google. The piece identified him as “the godfather of AI.” The piece reports on Hinton’s concerns about the risks of AI, one of which is its implications for the job market.
“He is also worried that A.I. technologies will in time upend the job market. Today, chatbots like ChatGPT tend to complement human workers, but they could replace paralegals, personal assistants, translators and others who handle rote tasks. ‘It takes away the drudge work,’ he said. ‘It might take away more than that.’”
The implication of this paragraph is that AI will lead to a massive uptick in productivity growth. That would be great news from the standpoint of the economic problems that have been featured prominently in public debates in recent years.
Most immediately, soaring productivity would hugely reduce the risks of inflation. Costs would plummet as fewer workers would be needed in large sectors of the economy, which presumably would mean downward pressure on prices as well. (Prices have generally followed costs. Most of the upward redistribution of the last four decades has been within the wage distribution, not from labor to capital.)
A massive surge in productivity would also mean that we don’t have to worry at all about the Social Security “crisis.” The drop in the ratio of workers to retirees would be hugely offset by the increased productivity of each worker. (The impact of recent and projected future productivity growth already swamps the impact of demographics, but a surge in productivity growth would make the impact of demographics laughably trivial.)
It is also worth noting that any concerns about technology leading to more inequality are wrongheaded. If AI does lead to more inequality, it will be due to how we have chosen to regulate AI, not AI itself.
People gain from technology as a result of how we set rules on intellectual products, like granting patent and copyright monopolies and allowing non-disclosure agreements to be enforceable contracts. If we had a world without these sorts of restrictions, it is almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which AI, or other recent technologies, would lead to inequality. (Imagine all Microsoft software was free. How rich is Bill Gates?)
If AI leads to more inequality, it will be because of the rules we have put in place surrounding AI, not AI itself. It is understandable that the people who gain from this inequality would like to blame the technology, not rules which can be changed, but it is not true. Unfortunately, people involved in policy debates don’t seem able to recognize this point.