Expect AI and automation to make you wealthier, healthier, and happier… if you’re rich

This robot wants to give you a burrito. Too bad I can’t even afford a Roomba.

Get ready for a bright and wonderful future full of intelligent robots caring for your every need. That’s is, if you’re wealthy.

For the rest of us, however, the future looks a lot less certain.

We all know that machines and their artificial brains are no longer replacing just simple, repetitive jobs as in years past; they are worming their way across the entire economic spectrum, touching almost everyone at every level and occupation. Doctors may be replaced with diagnostic sensors and algorithms; professors by online learning programs; and middle management by task-delegating software programs. Just today the New York Times reported on the inevitable automation of the trucking industry, which could displace millions of workers before long.

That’s too bad for all those would-be doctors, professors, managers, and truckers, but I’m sure your job is safe, right? I wouldn’t count on it. Sure, for a time people will still be needed to program and maintain the machines, and perform particular niche jobs that AI and robotics cannot yet replicate or do as well as we meat-bags can. Yet, foreseeably, everything we can do machines will eventually be able to do better.

Admittedly, all of this has been floating around for some time, as human society becomes steadily more anxious about its own relevance amid an increasingly automated world. Corporations, driven by profit, have every incentive to replace workers with AI and robotics… at least until there are no consumers left to buy the goods and services they produce. This is one critical piece of the societal re-alignment we are facing, but consider other inequities that might arise as this process unfolds:

  • AI is becoming increasingly adept at identifying and diagnosing diseases in their early stages, including cancer and diabetes. Sounds great for the wealthy, but for the hundreds of millions of people around the world with little or no access to healthcare, and the tens of millions of people in ‘wealthy’ countries with very limited or no health insurance at all, this technology may be of limited value.
  • AI is already being used to collect your personal preferences and buying habits, churning through vast stores of information to more effectively sell you crap you don’t need. While this contributes to corporate profits, it’s hard to argue that it’s also beneficial to the masses.
  • Mental enhancements. It still sounds like science fiction, but we’re getting to the point where the internet of things might soon include our very own fleshy brains. The ability to interact with computers and other people directly with your mind is something several companies (including your good friend, Facebook) are looking into. Mind control, and perhaps soon after, mind enhancements, will benefit those most able to afford them, potentially giving some an edge in everything from school, to business, to Candy Crush.
  • Smart robots for the home are not that far away either. It’s quite uncertain, however, how broadly available they will be. Again, the wealthy and those with top-notch health insurance plans will likely reap the benefits of these artificial companions long before anyone else.

These are just a few limited examples, of course, but it’s clear that the world of artificial intelligence is going to present significant and far-reaching challenges. It’s best to hedge your bets now and line your pockets with gold or, perhaps better yet, bitcoin. 


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