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  • Brendan Stec

Is AI our biggest existential threat?

In 1840, nearly 50% of Americans worked in agriculture, an industry focused on growing and distributing food for survival. By 1910, this number had shrunk to around 10%, with the rise of the “machines” in the industrial age then capturing the employment of over 40% of Americans. Fast forward to present day, and over 70% of Americans are employed in service industries, which frequently require a form of higher education unimaginable by the standards of the 1840’s or even 1910’s*.

Elon Musk and other futurists are nervous that AI and “smart machines” will surpass humans in intelligence and ability, leading to mass unemployment and extinction. Yet the American labor economy has continually found solutions to retain employment throughout several bouts of innovation in the past. The inevitability of AI will still require policy and education improvements, as outlined by Jerry Kaplan in Humans Need Not Apply. One example is the "job mortgage", a policy that incentivizes employees to continually learn more in demand skills.

It’s a bit of a stretch to deem AI as our biggest existential threat. Self-driving cars will dramatically improve transportation safety, and fertilizing drones will improve crop yields and production. Advanced machine learning software will allow governments, businesses, and individuals to use the vast quantities of available data to make better decisions, which will save millions of dollars and create value. Plus, there are more important “existential threats” to worry about. The first on this list is global warming, the long-term increase in the Earth's average temperature over time, which has the potential to cause more severe weather patterns and dangerous increases in sea levels. Nuclear weapons and pandemics (Ebola, H1N1, SARS) are nothing to shrug off either. We do need to take a proactive approach in dealing with the unprecedented AI technologies, so that we can direct it towards good causes. However, there are plenty of other threats and issues that should take priority as well.

Further Reading:

Humans Need Not Apply by Jerry Kaplan

*The statistics from the first paragraph are from three sources:

1840–1900: Robert E. Gallman and Thomas J. Weiss. "The Service Industries in the Nineteenth Century." In Production and Productivity in the Service Industries, ed. Victor R. Fuchs, 287-352. New York: Columbia University Press (for NBER), 1969.

1900–1940: John W. Kendrick, Productivity Trends in the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press (for NBER), 1961.

1950–2010: Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts.

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