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Artificial intelligence heralds a Brave New World of idleness and despair - The Telegraph - 25.04.23

It’s farcical that we’re still importing thousands of migrants when existing jobs are about to evaporate.

Studying for an English Literature A-level many moons ago, our set texts were two of the great dystopian novels of the 20th century, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. We were invited to compare the two regimes; and while they were both evidently dreadful, it struck at least one impressionable teenager that Brave New World was not that bad.

Natural birth had been replaced by artificial fertilisation and gestation. All new babies were programmed to carry out different tasks, with those destined for menial work predisposed to enjoy it and not question their lot. The elite, the alphas, had a sybaritic lifestyle of leisure and easy sex, with the population’s mood sustained by copious amounts of a drug called soma. No one got ill and, when you reached a certain age, though it was never specified which, you were euthanised. No old age, no dementia, no cancer. What’s not to like?

By contrast, 1984 depicted a ghastly world of brutal authoritarianism, economic privation and despair. Individualism was suppressed, history rewritten and the truth not so much distorted as reversed. If you want a picture of the future, says O’Brien, the interrogator of Winston Smith, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever.

Of the two, I’d opt for unlimited sex and no disease, if you don’t mind. But, of course, both are appalling, dehumanising prospects. And I think about Brave New World whenever I read about Artificial Intelligence, of which a great deal has been written recently as though it had only just been discovered.

But the clues have been there for years. Back in 2016, when the Earth was apparently rocked on its axis by two historically insignificant events, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the year’s real game-changer was the defeat of the world champion of the boardgame Go by Google’s DeepMind machine, Alpha.

Since there are more possible board positions in Go than atoms in the universe, it was assumed that computers could not possess the intuition and intelligence to beat a human. It turned out that they did. Now, panic is setting in among those who have released this particular genie from the bottle. Sundar Pichai, the boss of Google, recently said that AI could be “very harmful” if deployed wrongly, and was developing fast. “So does that keep me up at night? Absolutely,” he added.

In an interview with Harry de Quetteville in The Telegraph, the academic Yuval Noah Harari wondered if humans could even survive the onward march of AI. Whether he is a Jeremiah spreading negative impressions about what is a great boon to mankind, or a Cassandra – correct in his analysis but destined always to be ignored – we will not discover until it’s too late.

The reason Brave New World comes to mind is because its people (the alphas and betas, at any rate) have the chance to spend their time thinking and enjoying themselves, freed of the tyranny of working for a living. This is said to be the great prize offered by AI and, judging by the numbers who have retired early, there are lots who share that dream. But having a job and career is more than just about earning money; it is, for many, the defining aspect of their lives and they are not going to welcome what is coming next.

Optimists take the view that throughout human history great technological leaps forward have been beneficial and were opposed only by unimaginative technophobes. Look at the Luddites, they say. They smashed up the machines of the Industrial Revolution that led to an expansion in prosperity for the human race. That may have been true in the long run; but in the short term many thousands were put out of work or forced off the land and into squalid conditions in towns and cities. The disruption to lives lasted for decades.

It is also true that more than a million jobs in the West were culled by the de-industrialisation of the 1980s and 1990s, and yet it did not lead to mass unemployment because other work was created. But the AI revolution threatens to be different because it is all-encompassing.

As Harari put it in his Telegraph interview: “A lot of people might find themselves completely out of a job, not just temporarily, but lacking the basic skills for the future job market. We might reach a point where the economic system sees millions of people as completely useless. This has terrible psychological and political ramifications.”

Jobs that require research and source-checking are already being supplanted by AI, which can keep operating throughout the night and every weekend without worrying about maintaining a work-life balance. If people lose these jobs – and there are many of them in law, management, computing, medicine, academia and, dare I say, in journalism – being told that this offers great opportunities to put their feet up and broaden their minds is not going to cut it. How will they live without work or a regular salary? Writing bad poetry?

There is blithe talk of a guaranteed universal basic income, though where would the revenues come from for that? For starters, robots or their manufacturers will need to be taxed, or the Treasury coffers will empty fast.

Moreover, why are we still bringing in 300,000 migrant workers net annually through legal routes to do jobs that will soon be defunct while seeking to deport those who might carry out the work robots can’t do such as building, plumbing, social care, waitressing and the rest?

Belatedly, governments around the world are waking up to what is coming down the track. The emergence of the ChatGPT software and the realisation of its potential have shaken them from complacency, but they don’t really know what to do about it.

Harari was among a group of experts, including Elon Musk, calling for a moratorium on AI research while the world takes stock of what is going on but no one has taken any notice.

Artificial Intelligence is advancing much more rapidly than we realised. It has the capacity quite quickly to create a class of economically redundant people and undermine the whole basis of modern liberalism. How we deal with this extraordinary set of developments and avert the descent into a real-life dystopia is the biggest challenge of our times.

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Philip Johnston has been with the Daily Telegraph for more than 20 years. He is currently assistant editor and leader writer and was previously home affairs editor and chief political correspondent.


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