Cultural Atomic Bomb
Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
After witnessing the first nuclear weapon detonation in 1945, this excerpt from Hindu scripture consumed Robert Oppenheimer's mind. Oppenheimer played a crucial role in the Manhattan Project, which focused on developing the atomic bomb. While the project promised many positive scientific breakthroughs, such as the potential for clean and limitless energy, this potential, unfortunately, came with the danger of apocalyptic catastrophe. For the first time in history, humanity had invented a means to destroy itself entirely, and regrettably, it would not be the last time.
Enter the rise of Artificial Intelligence, or AI. Recently, OpenAI, creators of the popular ChatGPT, stated that:
Superintelligence will be the most impactful technology humanity has ever invented and could help us solve many of the world's most important problems. But the vast power of superintelligence could also be very dangerous, and could lead to the disempowerment of humanity or even human extinction. (emphasis mine)
Welcome to humanity's next installment of “Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.” The deployment of AI within the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is anticipated to usher in rapid and profound transformations in our world, far surpassing the pace of the last industrial revolution. These changes carry the potential for substantial economic and societal consequences, akin to a cultural atomic bomb.
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Putting aside the threat of annihilation from the emergence of a Terminator-like “Skynet,” there is a real, imminent threat of the further destruction of America’s middle class due to AI’s encroachment and replacement of both blue-collar and white-collar jobs via automation. Humanity has always had a tendency to want to destroy the world as it is and remake it in the image of various false gods. After all, that is the main charge of liberalism—progress and detachment from the natural world. According to left and right liberals, human “progress,” in both the social and economic spheres, cannot and should not be stopped, regardless of the consequences. Sure, AI may replace jobs and even eliminate entire industries, but new ones will rise in their place, creating new unforeseen employment opportunities and giving way to even greater economic benefits. This aspect of economic liberalism is known as “creative destruction.”
The idea of creative destruction was first introduced by economist Joseph Schumpeter in his book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy in 1942. This concept describes the ongoing cycle of innovation and technological progress within a capitalist economy that can both create and eliminate industries, companies, products, and job opportunities. To adherents of economic liberalism, creative destruction is always a net positive and a key factor in driving economic growth and progress. Creative destruction enables the distribution of resources from less productive or outdated sectors to more efficient and innovative ones. According to this, if Gross Domestic Product is increasing, all is right. Unfortunately, nowhere in this economic system is a concern for the flourishing of individuals, families, and communities whose entire worlds get destroyed in the process. What if a worker finds themselves in a situation where their job has been replaced by a machine, and the maintenance and programming of that machine is also being handled by AI? This is not just creative destruction but human eradication.
Supporters of economic liberalism often refer to Adam Smith's concept of the “invisible hand.” Smith believed that if individuals (both consumers and employers) are allowed to act freely and follow their own economic interests, the market will naturally allocate resources efficiently and benefit society as a whole. This is obviously not always the case, as sometimes businesses desire to reap the short-term benefits of economic growth and profits while ignoring potential long-term societal consequences. During the last industrial revolution, labor exploitation, increased pollution, and now globalization led to the hollowing out of American manufacturing and the devastation of the working class. Fast forward to an even more frightening future if the creators of AI are left to their own devices: What happens when this “invisible hand” is no longer human but is instead controlled by an “intellect” that has no regard for human needs or the common good? The reality is that one cannot separate the invisible hand from the body politic. They are intrinsically linked, not by computer networks, but by real human bonds.
One often discussed threat to blue-collar workers is the development and deployment of autonomous, self-driving trucks. The trucking industry is one of the largest in the country, employing over 3 million drivers. It is important to note that only seven percent of truckers hold a bachelor's degree. This highlights the fact that becoming a truck driver can be a financially rewarding career path without requiring extensive education or student loan debt. In fact, the cost of attending truck driving school and obtaining a CDL is significantly less than pursuing a four-year degree.
A few years ago, Ben Shapiro asked Tucker Carlson whether he would favor restrictions on trucking companies' ability to use AI to maintain the number of jobs available in the trucking industry. Without hesitation, Tucker replied, “Are you joking? In a second. In. A. Second.” Here, Tucker took a postliberal economic stance on preserving American jobs by not putting his faith in abstract “free market” principles. On the other hand, Shapiro expressed resistance to Tucker’s remedy, reflecting the economic liberal embrace of creative destruction. To those who worship the “free market,” economic “progress” demands that this technology surge forward unabated. If whole industries are destroyed, others will be created, and magically, all those truckers who have lost their middle-class jobs will simply find new ones, perhaps driving for Uber in the libertarian utopian “gig economy.” (Until Uber deploys their autonomous vehicles, that is.)
Similarly, in distribution warehouses, robots are poised to upend that sector as well. As it is, many Amazon employees are working incredibly long hours, even forgoing their timed bathroom breaks because fulfillment demands are too high. Free market “conservatives” are again set to embrace technologies that will render a huge swath of blue-collar Americans obsolete, unable to compete with machines that never get tired and do not require benefits or bathroom breaks. Are cheap consumer goods manufactured in China and rushed to your door within hours of ordering worth the further destruction of the American middle class?
Those who occupy white-collar jobs are also at risk. AI-powered algorithms enable the swift and precise analysis of vast datasets, automating data analysis tasks typically performed by researchers and data scientists. Additionally, chatbots and virtual assistants will continue to proficiently address customer inquiries and provide support, potentially reducing the demand for human customer service representatives entirely. AI's capacity to automate administrative duties like scheduling, email management, and document processing could alleviate the workload of administrative assistants and office personnel. Furthermore, AI's ability to generate written content, spanning news articles, reports, and marketing materials may impact content writing and copywriting jobs. Ironically, the prospect of “learning to code” as an alternative career path no longer seems so promising, as AI has already exhibited the capability to autonomously generate code. What will our nation look like when no Americans, regardless of class, are able to find work? A world in which large numbers of blue-collar and white-collar workers find themselves out of work and on food stamps will further tear at the fabric of society, increasing income inequality and destroying families. AI is an existential threat to the American way of life.
However, we are not at the mercy of technology. Rather, technology is a tool that should be used to make human lives better, not replace them. If implementing a certain form of technology would drastically alter America’s social landscape, the government does, in fact, have a responsibility to not only regulate but develop a plan to help transition workers to other fields if necessary. Conservatives talk about the importance of families and communities, but at every step, they have embraced economic policies that have either shipped jobs overseas, imported cheap labor from countries south of our border, or secured foreign-born workers on specialized H-1B visas, all for the sake of cheap labor, efficiency, and “progress.” Globalization has killed the American middle class and the embrace of AI stands to put the final nail in its coffin.
Considering the potential consequences AI may have on humanity's future, it is imperative that we either ban or pause the development and research of AI. This will allow governments and policymakers time to thoroughly analyze its potential impact. Government oversight of the tech industry is necessary to find an equilibrium between innovation and the greater welfare of society. Establishing explicit regulations and governance structures becomes essential in overseeing the development and implementation of AI technologies as well as ensuring consumer privacy. Transparency also stands as a crucial element in the realm of AI. Algorithms and decision-making processes must emerge from the shadows to promote both understanding and accountability. It is vital that AI systems become interpretable, allowing humans to comprehend how machine-made decisions are reached.
The well-being of workers, economic stability, and protection of communities and the common good must be given top priority in light of the threat posed by AI. It is crucial to take proactive measures and exercise careful consideration to ensure that it is not just a select few elite at the top of Silicon Valley that ultimately benefits from the Fourth Industrial Revolution.