History tells us that we’re in trouble if we prioritize efficiency and growth over values like equity and social connectedness.
By Kim Samuel
Recently, the renowned venture capitalist Vinod Khosla made a bold prediction: that AI will “free humanity from the need to work.”
His statement comes at a time of heightened anxiety about clever chatbots taking over jobs and even wresting control over society. Indeed, AI is developing at such a dizzying speed that even Elon Musk and other top investors in the technologies agree it’s moving too fast. One of Google’s top AI thinkers recently resigned because the extreme pace risks serious consequences for the economy, for cybersecurity, and even global security.
While few commentators go so far as to argue that AI will entirely solve the problem of scarcity or eliminate the necessity for human labor, Khosla’s bold words felt hopeful—and oddly familiar.
In fact, today’s predictions about AI sound a lot like an Industrial Age vision that never came to pass.
Ninety-three years ago, the legendary economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a paper called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” in which he argued that technological progress would drive productivity and economic growth to the point that we could all enjoy a 15-hour workweek, devoting more time to higher pursuits like arts, learning, and social connection.
Keynes wasn’t entirely wrong. As a whole, we’ve grown richer and more productive since the 1930s. But he wasn’t completely right, either: We’re working as much as ever, facing unprecedented levels of stress, and managing epidemic-levels of social isolation. It’s clear that decades of compounding economic growth didn’t bring about what Keynes called “freedom from pressing economic cares.”
Why? For one, the productivity gains of the 20th century weren’t equal across many sectors of the economy. Many people moved from agricultural or manufacturing work to service work, which doesn’t lend itself to automation. The gains from all this growth disproportionately accrued to a relatively small group, leading to widespread inequality that persists to this day.
Just like the industrial technologies Keynes wrote about in the 1930s, AI promises to radically increase productivity, eliminating the necessity for a considerable amount of human labor. Yet, looking to Keynes’ findings, it seems extremely unlikely that we’ll see the fulfillment of Khosla’s prediction.
For that, we need a whole lot more than revolutionary labor-saving technologies. Keynes’ vision didn’t come true because we prioritized efficiency, speed and maximum growth over values like equity, health, happiness and social connectedness. At this pivotal moment, centering these values in the conversation around AI is critical.
That starts with posing better, and smarter, questions. Yes, it can be valuable to ask: How can we reduce the need for human labor? But more importantly, we should ask: How can we boost social solidarity? How can we liberate people for greater creativity and connection? How can we impart to human beings that they really matter—that their lives are worth more than economic units on a balance sheet?
Asking these questions might yield different answers than those we’re used to hearing. And yes, it might mean hitting pause on some of the extreme pace of AI development. But it might also lead to policy options like a Universal Basic Income to safeguard livelihoods if current professions are made unnecessary by AI. Or unprecedented investments in retraining people for new professions based on a careful assessment of where human work is most needed.
In a time when the fast pace of technology is making people fear they’re being replaced by machines, there’s one core value that our society has to enshrine: belonging. Leaders in government, business, and culture need to elevate the idea that each and every human being has inherent right to belong that can’t be quantified in terms of GDP. Even the most sophisticated imaginable algorithm can’t replace the power of human connection and community.
John Maynard Keynes’ views offer a cautionary tale for our times. If we can tap into our imagination and consciously choose what we value, then we can put AI in service of the greater good.