An Untapped Opportunity?

When it comes to AI, It’s not a matter of if but when.

When AI becomes smarter and when companies begin replacing employees with AI tools and applications.

Corporations are throwing money (see Microsoft’s multi-billion-dollar investment in OpenAI) and resources at AI technologies that can lower costs and improve outcomes for them and their customers. 

AI will be a disruptor and a differentiator for businesses across all sectors, from retail and manufacturing to research and transportation, to software and content development.

The latest AI technologies will touch everything and everyone. They’ll affect the world’s economic food chain in ways we’ve never experienced. And while companies scramble to beat their competitors to the punch when applying AI to their processes and applications, our society fidgets and nervously awaits the next brave new world.

Creating corporate-sponsored programs and government policies to train workers in AI might work in the short term. Still, the more advanced AI becomes, the less reliant on humans it will be. Of course, small numbers of people with specialized and advanced AI skills will find complementary roles in this new work paradigm, but many others will not. For the worker, jobs will disappear, and wages will drop. For corporations, profits will soar. 

We (especially Americans) measure personal success in terms of our work and compensation because most of what we value — the house we own, the car we drive, the family vacations we take, and the sense of safety and security we provide our children is inherently tied to our work and compensation. And thus, our definition of success and how we value ourselves are all balled up in what we do for a living, what we can afford, and how well we can provide. 

When automation began replacing workers in manufacturing, those workers lost more than their jobs. People (who just a few years before had a valued and specialized skillset) became obsolete. Unable to pay their mortgages, afford their car, take a family vacation, or provide security for their children, they lost their sense of self-worth. And because the skills they brought to their workplace could now be replicated by a machine, they also lost hope. To survive and be successful again, they’d need to start over – learn new skills, and claw their way back to relevance. For many, that challenge was too great, and they gave up on life. Research shows a causal link between investment in automation and rising mortality levels, “with this rise largely due to so-called deaths of despair, such as drug overdoses and suicides. This was especially so for men and women aged between 45 and 54.

So, how do we avoid future deaths of despair when the new AI takes hold across industries? 

What will our societal response be to millions of jobs disappearing in the wake of AI-driven software and automation? 

What happens when the magnitude of job replacement from AI exceeds what we experienced when automation in manufacturing became the norm?

AI is not inherently bad. Its impact on society will largely depend on our reaction to it. We need outside-the-box thinkers in economics, business, the social sciences, and government to begin planning for the consequences of success when it comes to AI, because the effect on humans will be broad, deep, and potentially devastating. 

If AI and automation become the benchmark for productivity and success within a corporation, then perhaps AI presents us with an opportunity to reshape what it means to be a productive and successful human.

What if AI allows people to focus on a higher purpose?  If AI kills more jobs than it creates (and I think it will), we might consider implementing universal basic income (UBI) to help people find purpose in this brave new world, without fear of losing the roof over their heads.

With the right social and economic safety nets in place, AI can give people the space and the time to become better humans, where instead of defining success by work and compensation, we define it by how we treat others, by volunteerism, and through our capacity to love and care for one another — you know, the things that machines and AI can’t do.