Artificial intelligence – profit versus freedom

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By RICHARD D. WOLFF

It is false to say that AI threatens millions of jobs. Technology is not doing this, because the author of the “crime” is capitalism

Artificial Intelligence presents a profit opportunity for capitalists, but it is also a crucial choice for the working class. As the working class makes up the majority of the population, this crucial choice confronts society as a whole.

One now has the same opportunity for profit/social choice that was brought by the introduction of robotics, computers and, in fact, most technological advances throughout the history of capitalism. Under capitalism, employers decide when, where and how to install new technologies; employees just suffer the consequences. Employers’ decisions are driven primarily by the question: how does new technology affect “my” profit.

If new technologies allow employers to profitably replace paid workers with machines, they will implement the change. Employers have little or no responsibility to displaced workers, their families, neighborhoods, communities or governments for the many consequences of job loss.

If the cost of unemployment to society is 100, while the gain to employers' profits is 50, the new technology will be implemented. As employers' gain governs the decision, new technology is introduced, no matter how small that gain relative to society's loss. This is how capitalism has always worked.

A simple arithmetic example can illustrate the key point. Suppose that Artificial Intelligence doubles the productivity of some employees. During the same working time, they produce twice as much as before the use of Artificial Intelligence. Employers who start using this technology will then lay off half of their employees. These employers will then receive the same result from the remaining 50% of their employees as they did before the introduction of Artificial Intelligence.

To keep our example simple, let's assume that these employers then sell the same output for the same price as before. The resulting recipes will also be the same. The use of Artificial Intelligence will save employers 50% of their total previous wage bill (minus the cost of implementing Artificial Intelligence) and these savings will be kept by employers as additional profit for them. This additional profit was an effective incentive for the employer to implement Artificial Intelligence.

If we imagine for a moment that employees had the power that capitalism gives exclusively to employers, they would choose to use Artificial Intelligence in an entirely different way. They would use Artificial Intelligence, not fire anyone, but instead reduce all employees' working days by 50% while keeping their salaries the same.

Again, keeping our example simple, this would result in the same result as before using Artificial Intelligence; the same price for the goods or services and the inflow of revenue would follow. The profit margin would remain the same after using Artificial Intelligence (minus the cost of implementing the technology). The 50% of employees' previous workdays that are now available for leisure would be the benefit that would increase. This leisure – the freedom from work – is your incentive to use AI differently than employers do.

One way of using Artificial Intelligence generates additional profits for some, while the other way generates more leisure/freedom for many. Capitalism rewards and therefore encourages employer choice. Democracy points the other way. The technology itself is ambivalent. It can be used in any way.

Thus, it is simply false to write or say – as so many do today – that Artificial Intelligence threatens millions of jobs or job holders. Technology is not doing this, because the author of the “crime” is capitalism. Instead, the capitalist system organizes businesses into employers versus employees and thus uses technological progress to increase profit, not employees' free time.

Throughout history, enthusiasts have celebrated most major technological advances because of their “labor-saving” qualities. The introduction of new technologies would provide less work, less drudgery and less degrading work. The implication was that “we” – all people – would benefit. Of course, the capitalists' additional profits from technical advances undoubtedly brought them more leisure. However, the additional leisure that new technologies made possible for most workers was largely denied to them. Capitalism – the profit-oriented system – generated this denial.

Today, we face the same old capitalist story. The use of Artificial Intelligence can guarantee much more leisure for the working class, but capitalism subordinates Artificial Intelligence to speculation. Politicians shed crocodile tears at the frightening scenario of jobs lost to Artificial Intelligence.

Experts exchange estimates of how many millions of jobs will be lost if this technology is adopted. Gullible liberals invent new government programs designed to lessen or soften the impact of Artificial Intelligence on employment. Once again, the tacit agreement does not consist of questioning whether the problem comes from capitalism, nor in seeking the possibility of a change in the system as a solution to this problem.

In an economy based on worker cooperatives, employees would collectively be their own employers. The central structure of capitalist companies – the employer versus employee system – would no longer prevail. The implementation of the technology would then be a collective decision taken democratically.

With the absence of capitalism's employer versus employee divide, the decision about when, where and how to use Artificial Intelligence, for example, would become the task and responsibility of employees as a collective whole. They could consider the profitability of the enterprise among their objectives with the use of Artificial Intelligence, but they would certainly also consider the gain in leisure that this makes possible. Worker cooperatives make different decisions than those made by capitalist companies. Different economic systems affect and shape the societies in which they operate differently.

Throughout the history of capitalism, employers and their ideologues have learned how best to advocate technological changes that could increase profits. They celebrated these changes as advances in human ingenuity, deserving everyone's support. Individuals who suffered due to these technological advances were dismissed as “the price to pay for social progress”. If those who suffered rebelled, they ended up being reported for antisocial behavior – they were often also criminalized.

As with previous technological advances, Artificial Intelligence places both new and old and controversial issues on society's agenda. The importance of Artificial Intelligence is not limited to the productivity gains it achieves and the job losses it threatens.

Artificial Intelligence also challenges – once again – the social decision to preserve the employer-employee division as the basic organization of companies. In the past of capitalism, only employers made the decisions whose results employees had to live with and accept. Perhaps with Artificial Intelligence, workers will begin to demand that decisions be made with a view to changing the system beyond capitalism, towards an alternative based on worker cooperatives.

Richard D Wolff is an economist. He founded the Democracy at Work portal. Author, among other books, of Capitalism's Crisis Deepens (Haymarket).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the portal counter punch.


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