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What Are People For?

— August 14, 2023

Have advances in artificial intelligence and automation made humans obsolete? If they aren’t generating a profit, what are people for?

Last Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission cleared the way for significantly more autonomous cars to take to the streets in San Francisco. The 3-to-1 vote approved the necessary permits for Waymo and Cruise, the two largest driverless car companies testing their vehicles in California, to offer round-the-clock driverless taxi service in the city. With yet another automated service ready to disrupt the labor market and make it easier to navigate our day-to-day existence free of interpersonal hassles, we may start to wonder, “what are people for?”

In the case of driverless cars, the answer isn’t that difficult. What’s harder, according to San Francisco’s police and fire fighters, is dealing with the vehicles. It’s common for them to malfunction around emergency sites in ways that a competent human driver would not. They have blocked fire station driveways, driven through yellow emergency tape, failed to make way for police and fire trucks, and preventing them from making situations worse has consumed time that could be better spent on the emergency at hand. What are people for? In this context, they’re especially good at making better on-the-spot decisions than autonomous vehicles are.

Like the robo-cars, AI also hints at a future where fewer people are needed to fill common, entry level jobs such as data entry, cashier and telemarketer, with more complex jobs not far behind. Seems like every month, a few thousand more people are replaced by AI; nearly 4000 people last May alone.

Of course, the arguments in favor of displacement follow the usual scripts. There’s the belief that generative AI, like any new technology, will create at least as many new jobs as it destroys, and all we need to do is innovate these jobs into existence and re-train displaced workers for completely different careers (again) under this new paradigm. Then there’s the hopeful scenario where AI frees humans from repetitive and tiresome tasks in order to more fully flourish in their creativity. That last one is a tough sell when AI is equally good at improvising artistic works in which humans can still find meaning (or at least amusement). What are people for, when even the creative vision can be automated?

Some creators, at least, know what they’re for. There’s been a small yet promising backlash by authors and visual artists who allege that their works were used to train AI bots “without consent, without credit and without compensation.” The raw material on which AI is trained, whether that is works of fiction, paintings, or even your college papers and Zoom meetings, is then digested and regurgitated in a more-or-less new form when someone requests an AI bot to make it so. Multiple lawsuits, including those by Getty Images and comedian Sarah Silverman, have been filed over alleged misuse of their creative property. Author Jane Friedman recently made such a public outcry against AI-generated books being sold on Amazon by others using her name that the site finally relented and took the fake titles down, after claiming that they wouldn’t, since her name wasn’t trademarked.

What happens when it’s a less famous artist, or an author with less of a following than the likes of Margaret Atwood, doing the asking? Or when outrage fatigue turns down the flames under companies like Zoom, who may once again feel it’s safe to resume training AI bots on our every meeting?

smart phone screenshot of an AI chatbot.
Image by Mojahid Mottakin on Unsplash.

If, as research suggests, AI renders “375 million jobs obsolete” while putting a billion flesh-and-blood humans out of work around the world over the next decade, we’ll still have a powerful need to stay fed and sheltered while paying the bills. Additionally, if companies want to sell services like automated taxi rides and robot-generated novels, they’re going to need a customer base with discretionary income to pay for them at the same time that people have less money to spend on anything. Not only does this bode poorly for the success of any capitalist system, it may well lead to existential questions like “what are people for, after all?”

After all, we don’t need horses as much as we used to, either. Once they became an expensive luxury good, there were far fewer of them.

The same may be happening for people, at least in expensive, Global North countries.

In 2020, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population lived in areas where the fertility rate was below 2.1 children per woman, the threshold at which generations of people replace themselves in a stable population. The lowest replacement levels among wealthy countries are South Korea at 0.8, Spain and Italy at 1.2, and China at 1.3 children per woman. The United States came in at 1.6, just above Canada and Russia at 1.4 and 1.5, respectively.

Japan has one of the world’s oldest populations, and it’s shrinking fast with a rate of 1.26 children per woman (2023 data). Perhaps 39% of Japanese women born in the year 2000 will never have children, according to Tokyo-based researchers. According to one survey, a significant minority of both men and women in Japan are not interested in marriage or can’t find suitable, economically stable partners. It’s worrying the government so badly over the country’s future economic prospects that some municipalities are offering sweet incentives, like homes, jobs and childcare, to people of childbearing age.

And yet, such problems are not uncommon even here at home. When Millennials and older Zoomers can’t afford rapidly rising rent or starter homes, college is unaffordable, jobs are disappearing to automation, and we’re still working our way through a pandemic where we were told to sacrifice the lives of our elders and front-line workers “for the good of the economy,” maybe we don’t have to ask what people are for. We already know.

There are two hopeful possible futures ahead, though.

In one future, we live in the kind of post-work paradise described by economist John Maynard Keynes a century ago. He expected that automation would mean 15-hour work weeks and leisurely abundance for all. However, short of a radical new energy source we haven’t discovered yet (and the political will to enact a substantial Universal Basic Income), this seems unlikely.

In the other future, more likely by the minute, the technobubble of AI, driverless cars and automated everything gives way to the reality of low return on energy investments, more (and more chaotic) natural disasters, social unrest, and economic unraveling. There will be so much useful work to do.

What are people for? Believe it or not, they’re for more than generating profit. They’re for meaningful work. For visionary creation. For dreaming, coming together in community, helping each other, falling in love, joy, raising the next generation and fighting for justice.

Let’s hope we get to do all of that and more.

Related: Driverless Cars are Coming, They Say


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The Potentially Large Effects of Artificial Intelligence on Economic Growth [PDF]
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