It is just not AI; The glamor of “Technology” needs to be managed for the larger common good for all!

In their new book, “Power and Progress,” Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson ask whether the benefits of AI will be shared widely or feed inequality.  

Following are a few brief excerpts from this book review and our comments:

“We’re suggesting we can get back onto that path of shared prosperity, harness technology for everybody, and get productivity gains,” Johnson says. “We had all that in the postwar period. We can get it back, but not with the current form of our machine intelligence obsession. That, we think, is undermining prosperity in the U.S. and around the world.”

The authors are to be commended for calling attention to a critical problem (i.e.) Shared Prosperity Vs. gains for a few from AI. This notion of shared prosperity has been abrogated ever since the introduction of “Digital Technology (DT)” which began in the late 70s. DT and its many versions of Information Technology (IT) has been the driving force enabling automation of all human work for Information processing. Its impact can be seen through outsourcing and offshoring, using low cost labor thanks to “Supply Chain” solutions. This IT driven “Globalization” lifted many boats for the poor in low labor cost countries, while depleting the waters – financial resources – on which the boats of most of the middle class were floating, in the developed nations including USA and W. Europe. This phenomena  and unabated glamor for DT applications to gain productivity and cost benefits regardless of the economic consequences for the large majority of workers is articulated in our book published in 2000.  The suggested pathway for a limited few who can survive and succeed in this economic tsunami of “Globalization” is also suggested in this book. It is in the self-interest of professional workers to think and behave as “System integrators” and  “Solution workers” and not as “Task workers” confined to their limited knowledge or specialty area. This requires an integrated use of Science, Engineering and Management as three creative tools and NOT as three independent and isolated silos.

To alter this trajectory, Acemoglu and Johnson advocate for an extensive menu of policy responses, including data ownership for internet users (an idea of technologist Jaron Lanier); tax reform that rewards employment more than automation; government support for a diversity of high-tech research directions; repealing Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from regulation or legal action based on the content they host; and a digital advertising tax (aimed to limit the profitability of algorithm-driven misinformation).

“Tax reform” to generate more revenue from the “Technology” driven productivity gains and quick riches they generate is a different and parallel path from “increase in employment” to enhance the job opportunities and the education and skill development required for that. They are like good nutrition and physical fitness for a human Vs. actions required to improve the heart condition and brain functions. The heart and brain specialists are different from the nutrition and physical fitness specialists. Tax reform for new revenue sources and skill development for new labor skills depend on each other. Tax reform is needed to generate revenue needed for implementation of new labor skill development programs. Tax reform to gain more revenue from Technology driven new income requires a public will to tax the rich, the beneficiaries of unbridled use of ”Tech. Sector advancements”. Creating new labor skills requires investments in education as well as a requirement to use locally available labor pool as much as possible, much similar to “Make in America, buy in America” policy being pushed by the Biden administration. Also, no amount of Government policies and programs can address the skill needs of the worker pool unless people themselves are willing to learn and change their skills. We address this need as System Thinking and Transformational Skills and their details in the book published in 2013. 

“Debates on new technology ought to center not just on the brilliance of new products and algorithms but on whether they are working for the people or against the people,” they write.

Above is a laudable observation, but an utopian wish unless the policy makers and public at large are truly reflective and address the larger needs of the people. This is the essence of Emotional Intelligence (i.e.) thinking on behalf of others as the starting point (which in the end would also benefit the self).

Today “Technology driven new products and algorithms” are conceived and implemented in a way that meets the immediate needs – low hanging fruits – to gain productivity and the lower cost to replace human labor irrespective of the impact on employment or how it affects people at large. The spread of fake news, disinformation, isolation and mental health issues caused by social media are all seen as problems for “somebody else to solve” and not the probl;em of the tech, companies that generate the products, implement and distribute them. Any chemical Co. or car manufactuer can not get away with such wide spread harm to the public as much as that are caused by tech, sector companies! This requires higher levels of emotional intelligence driven by Spirituality in Practice as a second nature to all. Teaching such basics in Philosophy from the middle school onwards may be overdue? This is the core of our third book published this year (2023). 

“We need these discussions,” Johnson says. “There’s nothing inherent in technology. It’s within our control. Even if you think we can’t say no to new technology, you can channel it, and get better outcomes from it, if you talk about it.” This is a good beginning. I am glad the authors talk about it. Let us hope enough would listen and follow. Yes, there are tangible solutions, but it will require a holistic and integrated approach. I wonder how many from the Computer Science Dept. would read the above or discuss with the faculty in the humanities and traditional engineering Departments to arrive at and articulate collaborative solutions? All such collaboration would need System Thinking, Transformational Skills and enhanced Emotional Intelligence. These are needs to be met across the board and such discussion may need to start from our institutions of higher learning?