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The first time I heard the term “superfluous people” was when reading the 19th-century Russian writers Alexander Pushkin and Ivan Turgenev. In their stories, mollycoddled, world-weary layabouts from the minor nobility would chase women, gamble away their inheritance and shoot each other in duels.

Like the “fifth wheel on a cart,” as Turgenev described them, they could find little purpose in life and their real-life counterparts would later be sucked into radical causes. Such elite overproduction is sometimes blamed for fuelling the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. 

The second time I heard the term “superfluous people” was in a more recent, and chilling, conversation with a West Coast venture capitalist. Only this time it was in connection with the artificial intelligence revolution. His view was that machines would soon be able to do almost all the jobs humans currently do, rendering a lot of us superfluous.

“There will be only two types of jobs in the future: those that tell machines what to do and those that are told by machines what to do,” he said. 

In other words, either you will be the one writing the algorithms instructing Uber drivers where to go. Or you will be the Uber driver being told by that algorithm where to go. Then again, both jobs might disappear with the arrival of fully self-driving cars.

This reductionist talk has become louder as the AI hype has grown. Smart machines will automate brain power in the same way that dumb machines automated brawn power during the industrial revolution. Once again, the recurrent spectre of technological unemployment has emerged. AI would be “the most disruptive force in history” and we could reach a point “where no job is needed”, the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk told the British prime minister Rishi Sunak last year. “AI will probably be smarter than any single human next year,” Musk posted this week.

This sense of technological inevitability was partly echoed at a recent Ditchley Foundation conference in Oxfordshire, UK on the impact of AI on work and education, attended by policymakers, technologists and business executives. Some speakers argued that we were rapidly approaching a jobs “emergency”. Employers were already jumping on the possibilities of generative AI to shed workers and cut graduate recruitment. Today, generative AI threatens the jobs of copywriters and call-centre workers. Tomorrow, it will hit middle managers and lawyers.

Generative AI will also alter the nature of many tasks that employees perform, even if it does not kill their jobs outright. One study of its impact estimated that the technology would affect at least 10 per cent of the tasks carried out by about 80 per cent of the US workforce.

But some labour market experts counter that these sweeping predictions of a jobs apocalypse are ahistorical and almost certainly wrong. They ignore our past experience with new technologies, the dynamics of societal adaptation, the possibilities of creative innovation and the weight of demographics. In short, they confuse technological feasibility with economic viability, as the sociologist Aaron Benanav has argued.

One of the main complaints of employers at the Ditchley conference was how hard it was to recruit skilled workers in near full-employment economies and ageing societies. And while it is easy to see the jobs that will be disrupted by AI, it is hard to imagine those that will be created. About 60 per cent of the job categories in the late 2010s did not exist in 1940 — in medicine, software, entertainment and solar power, for example. “Barring a massive change in immigration policy, the US and other rich countries will run out of workers before we run out of jobs,” wrote David Autor, the MIT economist, in a recent essay.

As Autor, and others, have argued, we should therefore regard AI as an opportunity, rather than an emergency. It offers the chance to extend the “relevance, reach and value” of human expertise to more workers and rebuild the middle class.

We can use AI to boost life-long learning and supplement a diminishing workforce. We can upskill and revalorise the professions that are still best performed by humans, such as nursing and teaching. And we have to find better ways to redistribute the financial gains of the AI revolution from the winners to the losers. 

Failure to do so will probably lead to another revolt of the “superfluous people”, only this time against the robots, rather than the Romanovs.

Video: AI: a blessing or curse for humanity? | FT Tech
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