• Ayush Singhal

The Political Economy of Artificial Intelligence


The first machine that considerably reduced human effort was the wheel. It has been a central feature in mankind’s progress. Recent technological advancements, however, might end up with a bitter side--unlike the wheel. Technological up-gradation like the technology to convert sea water into drinking water would obviously be received with pleasure by all. However technological advancements like driver-less cars would put hundreds of thousands out of job. The total percentage of skilled population in India, for instance, was two percent as recent as 2015. India is the second most populous country in the world. Even by the most conservative estimates, more than 200 million people will lose jobs with the advent of artificial intelligence in the country. Technology and robots are a heavy but one-time investment and tech costs usually decrease over time. Hence, the only way these workers can stay economically indispensable is by acquiring skills. But even the highest possible rate of acquiring skills can't meet the pace of displacement by robots. Also, robots are not only coming for the jobs of the unskilled but even semi-skilled and highly skilled individuals. The data analysis and regression done by an individual with a degree in statistics would be much slower compared to that of a robot with artificial intelligence.


AI rearing its ugly head, by Shrivatsa Krishna.


A senior counsel wouldn't need the brief of a junior lawyer on a case if a robot can do the task much better. Technology and machines are meant to provide a better life for humans and should not become a problem for them. If you ask an extremely poor person living in a developing society with high-income inequality--would he rather have status quo, or an equitable society with obsolete technology of the 19th century, he would gladly choose the latter. If artificial intelligence is going to benefit just ten percent of the society, and render economically irrelevant and jobless millions of people, then it is quite useless. But this situation could be avoided and the technology of tomorrow could be turned into a boon rather than being a bane. The state and society would have to play a pro-active role in turning the up-gradation of technology into a boon for all. This is a chance for human civilization to focus on things beyond economic development and growth, and instead focus on happiness, social progress etc.


Managing the AI Boom


A concept, which stands out in the pool of ideas for ensuring a basic standard of living for people, is Universal Basic Income. In a scenario where machines have taken up most of the traditional jobs, a Universal Basic Income would ensure that people could focus on things other than money. This system should be based on incentives. One of the biggest oppositions to Basic income is that the money can't be given for nothing in return. This would take away the will to work. But an incentive-based approach would be able to tackle the problem.


The people, rather than spending money to acquire skills in learning centers (universities), would be paid to acquire them. This would also help in the transition to the artificial intelligence age. It would be a challenge to push people especially the elderly to acquire new skills. But with the proposed structure, an individual will have an economic incentive to acquire those skills. The skills do not necessarily have to be purely economic ones. Currently, the job of a psychologist or social worker pays relatively less compared to the job of an engineer. The change in this pay structure could be expected with the advent of robots. Hence, human civilization could focus on things beyond economic growth and instead focus on happiness and social good. Under the proposed incentive structure, skills in empathy, humility, ego-reduction, and emotional intelligence, among others should be given an important place. These are some things which robots are unlikely to acquire and would be beneficial for the progress of human civilization.



Serious thought should be given to the idea of Basic income for avoiding problems arising out of artificial intelligence and robots. It could evolve into different forms for the benefit of future citizens of the world. The second thing that needs serious consideration, and is also interlinked with the proposal for incentive-based Basic income, is education. The education system is central to any country's progress and development. The current education system in almost all the countries can't be deemed fit for the age of artificial intelligence. Some of the things being learnt in schools today would be redundant in the age of artificial technology. The focus needs shift from rote learning to creativity and instilling social values. Innovation and discovery are unlikely to be a domain of artificial intelligence software and digital robots. Only humans could have discovered fire or invented paper currency, not AI. Now more emphasis could be laid on innovation with machines taking over the “less productive” tasks. Another subject which could play a part in preparing the world for the future is Economics. The industrial revolution saw a complete overhaul of the principles of Economics back then; likewise, the study of 'old Economics' is not enough anymore. The current economists need to be encouraged to question the prevailing principles of Economics. The future economists need to be trained in a manner that prepares them for challenges and the change in principles of Economics with the advent of robots and artificial intelligence.


Thus, the education system needs to be revamped so that problems which may arise in the future could be avoided, or at least solved better.


Source: World Bank


State and Society


The state and civil society are going to play a very important role in the artificial intelligence age. Every revolutionary technology brings with it some challenges. The challenges need to be taken care of by framing policies and regulations. The Internet is a revolutionary technology but it required the creation of cyber laws to regulate and govern. The role of policymakers and analysts would become very important when it comes to advanced artificial intelligence software and digital robots. Policy formulation and execution would become easier as data analysis, program evaluation, and implementation would be aided by new technology. Technology would be able to discover information that an average analyst wouldn't. Policymakers and analysts could then focus on understanding the problems and devising solutions, rather than augmenting new skills. It would make some skills required for data analysis, evaluation and implementation redundant for people working in this field. Policymakers and analysts could then increase their focus on empathy, emotional intelligence, and creativity-- innovations that are important components of public policy and cannot be done by the new technology.


" The pace of progress in artificial intelligence (I'm not referring to narrow AI) is incredibly fast. Unless you have direct exposure to groups like Deepmind, you have no idea how fast it is growing at a pace close to exponential. The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five-year time frame - 10 years at most."

-Elon Musk


Artificial intelligence is an immediate concern and only the state and policymakers can put things stated above in motion. The proposal of basic income, an overhaul of the education system, transfer of technology, regulations and guidelines for artificial technology are all things which governments have to take care of, and require bold steps from their side. The state has the power to bring the discourse on artificial intelligence into the public domain. Since we are talking about augmenting skills to stay economically relevant, for that to happen people first need to be made aware and be apprised of the situation.


The Digital Divide


Investment in artificial intelligence and robots is an attractive option for the developed world since they have money for research and development, and the technological upgrade would lead to a substantial decrease in costs in the long run. The workforce in developed countries is expensive and they have to export a bulk of manufacturing and IT jobs to developing countries like China and India. Hence, it would be a profitable venture for developed countries. But the developing countries of Asia and Africa have abundant cheap labour and they do not have enough emphasis on innovation and R&D. Moreover, developing countries have an acute shortage of skilled labour. The skilled labour in India was just two percent in 2015 according to the labour bureau of India1. Hence, these countries might not even have enough skilled labour to implement systems of Artificial Intelligence on the ground. Things like smartphones with advanced AI can easily be imported but driver-less cars also require a complete change in the traffic system which is much tougher in a developing country than a developed country.



Hence, the developing world may not consider artificial intelligence a plausible option for some years after it becomes prevalent in the developed world. This needs to be remedied and the developed world needs to help the transition of the developing world to the artificial intelligence age or else there would be problems for both. There would be unprecedented migration. Individuals who have been displaced by digital robots would want to migrate to developing countries to stay economically relevant. The economies of developing countries like Ethiopia, Indonesia, China, Cambodia, India, and Bangladesh would be severely affected with shifting of manufacturing and IT centers back to the developed countries and supply of cheap products made by digital robots.


The developing countries of Asia and Africa would face the risk of recolonization by a technically superior west. Chances of the Basic Income project succeeding and fighting off harms of artificial intelligence are higher if implemented universally or else people would want to shift to countries with an availability of basic income.


However, it is interesting to note that the technological gap between developed and developing nations has been a bridging at a fast pace in the 21st century. Earlier, technologies which came to masses in the developing countries in the 1990s may have already been accessible in the developed countries in 1970s. Automobile technology and telecommunication are prominent examples of this. Today, a new iPhone launched in the USA is also available in India at the same time.


One of the reasons for this could be the technological spill over by multi-national companies in a more globalized world since the 1990s. Foreign direct investment has been a major source of technology transfer in the poor countries.


Another reason could be the advent of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). They have made the world more interconnected and helped in information dissemination. Earlier, a person from a developing country could only experience technologies s/he hadn't even heard about—if s/he was visiting a developed nation. Hence limiting the number of people who knew about technological progress in the east. Today, information about technology travels around the world through the internet, minutes after the introduction of that technology. This makes it a little easier to transfer technology but nonetheless doesn't ensure certainty.


The Road Ahead


Artificial intelligence and robots are undeniably going to be a huge part of the life of humans in the future. But the question is if the technology is going to benefit only a select few and increase the concentration of wealth and inequality, or is it going to make human lives better and aid the progress of human civilization equitably? In my opinion, the answer lies in how we prepare ourselves for the advent of artificial intelligence.


We could soon launch into an era where meeting physiological needs of all humans is not a difficult task anymore or we could slip back into feudal times where a few had all the wealth and power. Governments, policy-makers, and popular opinion are going to play a big role in shaping the response to artificial intelligence because it would be a difficult task for individuals to prepare themselves and augment their skills without any larger structured plan and support. The need of the hour is to make the technology of artificial intelligence a part of the larger discourse on the future of human civilization, and find out a way to ensure transfer the technology across the borders.

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

About the Author

Ayush Singhal is a poet, a social worker, a debater and a student of Public Policy. He holds an undergraduate degree in Political science from Kirorimal college, Delhi University. He has worked with Public health foundation of India, Pratham, Centre for Indian Political Research and Analysis, among others. He has interests in Indian Political History, Policy implementation and development, Education and Urbanization.

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