AI and authoritarianism

Much of the discourse on the future of AI , such as this one, has focused on people being displaced by machines. While this is certainly a worthy concern, these analyses sometimes fall into the trap of linear thinking because the displaced workers are also customers. The revenues of companies like Google and Facebook depend almost entirely on selling advertisements to a consumer base that has disposable income to spend. What happens when this base dwindles to a tiny fraction of the world’s population? The progression forward will also most likely not be monotonic because as people initially start to be replaced by machines, those left with jobs may actually get increased compensation and thus drive more consumerism. The only thing that is certain is that the end point of a world where no one has work is one where capitalism as we know it will no longer exist.

Historian and author Yuval Harari argues that in the pre-industrial world, to have power is to have land (I would add slaves and I strongly recommend visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture for a sobering look at how America became so powerful). In the industrial world, the power shifted to those who own the machines (although land won’t hurt) while in the post-industrial world, power falls to those with the data. Harari was extrapolating our current world where large corporations can track us continually and use machine learning to monopolize our attention and get us to do what they desire. However, data on people is only useful as long as they have resources you want. If people truly become irrelevant then their data is also irrelevant.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen in the future. I proposed an optimistic scenario here but here is a darker one. Henry Ford supposedly wanted to pay his employees a decent wage because he realized that they were also the customers for his product. In the early twentieth century, the factory workers formed the core of the burgeoning middle class that would drive demand for consumer products made in the very factories where they toiled. It was in the interest of industrialists that the general populace be well educated and healthy because they were the source of their wealth. This link began to fray at the end of the twentieth century with the rise of the service economy, globalisation, and automation. After the second World War, post-secondary education became available to a much larger fraction of the population. These college educated people did not go to work on the factory floor but fed the expanding ranks of middle management and professionals. They became managers and accountants and dentists and lawyers and writers and consultants and doctors and educators and scientists and engineers and administrators. They started new businesses and new industries and helped drive the economy to greater prosperity. They formed an upper middle class that slowly separated from the working class and the rest of the middle class. They also started to become a self-sustaining entity that did not rely so much on the rest of the population. Globalisation and automation made labor plentiful and cheap so there was less of an incentive to have a healthy educated populace. The wealth of the elite no longer depended on the working class and thus their desire to invest in them declined. I agree with the thesis that the abandonment of the working class in Western liberal democracies is the main driver of the recent rise of authoritarianism and isolationism around the world.

However, authoritarian populist regimes, such as those in Venezuela and Hungary, stay in power because the disgruntled class that supports them is a larger fraction of the population than the opposing educated upper middle class that are the winners in a contemporary liberal democracy. In the US, the disgruntled class is still a minority so thus far it seems like authoritarianism will be held at bay by the majority coalition of immigrants, minorities, and costal liberals. However, this coalition could be short lived. Up to now, AI and machine learning has not been taking jobs away from the managerial and professional classes. But as I wrote about before, the people most at risk for losing jobs to machines may not be those doing jobs that are simple for humans to master but those that are difficult. It may take awhile before professionals start to be replaced but once it starts it could go swiftly. Once a machine learning algorithm is trained, it can be deployed everywhere instantly. As the ranks of the upper middle class dwindle, support for a liberal democracy could weaken and a new authoritarian regime could rise.

Ironically, a transition to a consumer authoritarianism would be smoothed and possibly quickened by a stronger welfare state. A possible jobless economy would be one where the state provides a universal basic income that is funded by taxation on existing corporations, which would then compete for those very same dollars. Basically, the future incarnations of Apple, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon, and Google would give money to an idle population and then try to win it back. Although, this is not a world I would choose to live in, it would be preferable to a socialistic model where the state would decide on what goods and services to provide. It would actually be in the interest of the corporations and their elite owners to lobby for high taxes and to not form monopolies and allow for competition to provide better goods and services. The tax rate would not matter much because in a steady state loop, any wealth inequality is stable regardless of the flux. It is definitely in their interest to keep the idle population happy.

9 thoughts on “AI and authoritarianism

  1. I teach poetry,
    at an ivy university,
    and have a degree,
    in theoretical biology.

    No robot can replace me.
    (they say ‘yes we can!!!’).

    I live in a market democracy,
    where everyone is free to choose, or free to lose.

    You can buy cheap booz,
    or work at booz-allen-hamilton,
    and go see hamilton
    or get in a clinical trial at NIH
    sober you up in just 3 months
    the fMRI is free and if u go in that u will be

    ‘free at last no money down’
    das Kapital –if you build it they will come
    to the new AA museum
    land of the free , get property

    in a free market economy,
    if you work hard,
    you can get you a hamster wheel,
    and run around and round
    and be happy.

    I use facebook and have never bought anything from amazon or anything advertized. I’m even worse at fulfilling my shopping requirements (‘shop until you drop’ is part of the required curricula of being a citizen similar to academic curricula requirements , and some fail) .

    Alot of people in the ‘abandoned working class’ are perfectly happy with that–using equal a priori probability say, maybe 50%. They get an SUV, house, wide screen TV, etc in exchange for building luxury condos, roads, and such. Other 50% get their opiate and other addictions. Same sort of populist dynamic applies—some vote, others don’t, and it has same effect.

    (I listen to NPR a fair amount, which is commercial free but has ‘sponsors’ so you have ‘sponsored messages’ on there maybe 3 times an hour for addiction treatment programs — and places like the Whittle school. Like elder care, addiction treatment seems like a good employment prospect–growing field. It coexists or coevolves with other employment fields like pharmaceutical industry (legit and illegit) , criminal justice field, etc.)

    This is a form of consumer authoritarianism—you are ‘free to choose’ (milton friedman) but only within certain limits (like national socialism).

    I choose the ‘wine water paradox’ due to M Keynes, von Mises and others (a form of Bertrand paradox from probability theory). One could say this is all about how you choose your ‘bayesian prior’ (a term like ‘opportunity cost’ i dislike becasue tis redundant Its like this kid who asked me awhile back what ‘dihyrdro-oxygen was–said ‘water’ or h20 and was told basically i didnt know what i’m talking about so he’d refer to some experts instead.) that idea goes back to de Toqueville, Bakunin (anarchist) Burnham (trotksyist and later far rightist ), even j k galbraith and b eihrenreich. That explains half of everything . the idea is also in physics : ‘order parameter’. Van Heijenoort was a famous historian of math logic—and was Trotsky’s personal secretary until he was assainated in mexico—so heijenoort got a job at harvard.


  2. “such as those in Venezuela and Hungary”

    Holy cow!
    COMPARING Venezuela and Hungary?
    This destroys any shred of credibility you might have, your political ideas/informations are worse than horseshit.


  3. @realist While there are massive differences between the situations in Venezuela and Hungary, what is common is that they are democratically elected governments that seem to have support of the majority of the population but maybe I’m wrong.


  4. As usual, I agree with a lot of what you say like the upper middle class is the biggest demographic to be disrupted by AI. However, I disagree with your conclusion on where this takes us. Your final scenario of corporations paying consumers, via government taxes instead of wages, to by their stuff is ultimately a third party pays system. We actually have two examples of that. The first is the current Google, et al advertising driven model where the consumers think they are the customers but they are actually the product. The current Russian election tampering scandal shows part of the flaws in this model. The more glaring example is healthcare where third parties pay healthcare providers to compete for patients. Like Google, individuals and their medical ailments are not the customer in any true economic sense but the product to be sold to Medicare and the Insurance companies who are the actual customers. I would argue that this lack of consumer ownership of the payment combined with high government intervention has stifled true innovation and lowered access to healthcare by raising prices and costs of doing business. It has put a premium on lobbying instead of patient services. This relatively recent healthcare model (post 1940) is creating an unsustainable situation which likely to last not much longer than communism did and I don’t think we should not pattern any future solutions after it.


  5. Thank you for the post and this blog in general. I really enjoy reading it.

    In the dystopia you described, would you expect companies to continuously decrease their investments in research and development? If so, wouldn’t that make consumers unhappy down the line?


  6. @osman I think it depends on how many are left and how strong the government is. If there are a few companies then they may still do R&D to compete for market share. In a less dystopian version, if the marginal cost of production is zero then in principle anyone could become a producer so competition could arise from a non dominant player. It is very unclear what would be a stable equilibrium if there even is one.


  7. Venezuela has a population of 31 million; Hungary around 10M. Sometimes ‘finite size effects’ can alter the behavior of systems with different population sizes. (If you have an infinite population then you can use something like CLT.)

    A sample of Venezuela’s population suggests using DNA its 60% of european descent, 23% ‘amerindian’, and 16% african. Hungary would have different DNA statistics.
    Hungary had famous math people like Paul Erdos (‘the man who only loved numbers’ (and meth) , B Bollobos, and george Polya.

    Some applied math people (economics) are from Venezuela , probably from the ‘better off classes’ —eg the ones in control of parts of the oil and media industries-but many moved to USA (eg boston) e.g. Hausmann did some studies which claimed Venezuela’s elections were rigged using benford’s ‘law of last digits’.

    He also has discovered original sin, dark matter, the big bang, and the ‘product space’ in economics, and should get prioerity for those concepts, as well as the 729 measures of economic complexity (see arxiv) that most likely everyone should know so USA can compete in the global economy.


  8. I really liked your point about decreasing motivation by the elite to invest in the populace as the 20th century came to a close and onward from there. I also really like how you compare that dynamic to what would happen to an even greater extent as profitability is further divorced and independent of the welfare of the populace by AI.

    So in this scenario, there’s more and more surplus humanity—surplus in terms of their value to the economy. That’s a pretty frightening situation, and I can’t help but fear that massive die off is not out of the question.

    I also have to think that if true general AI comes online, all humans are very likely toast anyway. We all become surplus to the economy in that case.

    The only other scenario I can envision is the Star Trek TNG version of utopia where we no longer use money and simply pursue personal development because all needs are easily met with replicators or the equivalent.

    So it either does all bad, or it goes all good. Or we could split the difference and become the Borg.


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