It’s no secret that the world’s largest and most powerful tech companies, including Google, Amazon, Meta and OpenAI, have a single-minded focus on creating Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Yet we currently know as little about what AGI might look like as we do about the risks that it might pose to humanity.

It is essential that debates around existential risk proceed with an urgency that tries to match or eclipse the speed of developments in the technology (and that is a tall order). However, we cannot afford to ignore other questions – such as the economic and political implications of AI and robotics for the world of work.

We have seen a glimmer of what is to come in the recent actors’ industrial action in Hollywood. While their ‘log of claims’ touched on a broad range of issues, a central concern related to the use of Generative AI. Part of that central concern focused on the need to receive equitable remuneration for the ongoing use of digital representations of real, analogue (flesh and blood) people. Yet, their deepest fear is that human actors will become entirely redundant – replaced by realistic avatars so well-crafted as to be indistinguishable from a living person.

Examples such as this easily polarise opinion about the general trajectory of change. At one end of the spectrum are the optimists who believe that technological innovation always leads to an overall increase in employment opportunities (just different ones). At the other end are the pessimists who think that, this time, the power of the technology is so great as to displace millions of people from paid employment.

I think that the consequences will be far more profound than the optimists believe. Driven by the inexorable logic of capitalism, I cannot conceive of any business choosing to forgo the efficiency gains that will be available to those who deploy machines instead of employing humans. When the cost of labour exceeds the cost of capital the lower cost option will always win in a competitive environment.

For the most part, past technical innovation has tended to displace the jobs of the working class – labourers, artisans, etc. This time around, the middle class will bear at least as much of the burden. Even if the optimists are correct, the ‘friction’ associated with change will be an abrasive social and political factor. And as any student of history knows, few political environments are more explosive than when the middle class is angry and resentful. And that is just part of the story. What happens to Australia’s tax base when our traditional reliance on taxing labour yields decreasing dividends? How will we fund the provision of essential government services? Will there be a move to taxing the means of production (automated systems), an increase in corporate taxes, a broadening of the consumption tax? Will any of this be possible when so many members of the community are feeling vulnerable? Will Australia introduce a Universal Basic Income – funded by a large chunk of the economic and financial dividends driven by automation?

None of this is far-fetched. Advanced technologies could lead to a resurgence of manufacturing in Australia – where our natural advantages in access to raw materials, cheap renewable energy and proximity to major population areas could see this nation become one of the most prosperous the world has ever known.

Can we imagine such a future in which the economy is driven by the most efficient deployment of capital and machines – rather than by productive humans? Can we imagine a society in which our meaning and worth is not related to having a job?

I do not mean to suggest that there will be a decline in the opportunity to spend time undertaking meaningful work. One can work without having ‘a job’; without being an employee. For as long as we value objects and experiences that bear the mark of a human maker, there will be opportunities to create such things (we already see the popularity of artisanal baking, brewing, distilling, etc.). There is likely to be a premium placed on those who care for others – bringing a uniquely human touch to the provision of such services. But it is also possible that much of this work will be unpaid or supported through barter of locally grown and made products (such as food, art, etc.).

Can we imagine such a society? Well, perhaps we do not need to. Societies of this kind have existed in the past. The Indigenous peoples of Australia did not have ‘jobs’, yet they lived rich and meaningful lives without being employed by anyone. The citizens of Ancient Athens experienced deep satisfaction in the quality of their civic engagement – freed to take on this work due to the labour of others bound by the pernicious bonds of slavery. Replace enslaved people with machines and might we then aspire to create a society just as extraordinary in its achievements?

We assume that our current estimation of what makes for ‘a good life’ cannot be surpassed. But what if we are stuck with a model that owes more to the demands of the industrial revolution than to any conception of what human flourishing might encompass?

Yes, we should worry about the existential threat that might be presented by AI. However, worrying about what might destroy us is only part of the story. The other part concerns what kind of new society we might need to build. This second part of the story is missing. It cannot be found anywhere in our political discourse. It cannot be found in the media. It cannot be found anywhere. The time has come to awaken our imaginations and for our leaders to draw us into a conversation about whom we might become.


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