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“The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence,” an op-ed in The New York Times, is the important article you can read and contemplate this week. Its kernel concept: forget the sci-fi concerns about AI, reducing humans to cyborgs; the real threat comes in age-old questions about the distribution of power among the humans who control it.  In this rendition, the conclusion to a global information economy is that AI will put so many people out of work. Reviving the coal industry in the United States or a Carrier plant in Indiana are sputtering artifacts of a previous era and matter not in a world where complex machines utilizing high-power data analytics will displace most jobs as we know them.

The author of this piece, Kai-Fu Lee, president of the Artificial Intelligence Institute, situates this concept within defined geo-politics. China and the United States, he suggests, are the only countries with the necessary research and development talent to realize the full potential of AI. These two countries will render the rest of the world into a client-state relationship.  Social engineering the new political economy results in a greater marketization of compassionate vocations and guaranteed income for everyone else displaced from remunerative work. (Re?)Distribution of power and income lies at the core of his analysis.

A critique of his view rests quickly on a central assumption he makes about the potential equivalency of China and the United States. That nation-states, a Western political phenomenon that emerged roughly around 1500 and has influenced political development globally into the present, will survive as we now know them in the full-flowering of the global information economy is one, for example, that I am not automatically willing to accept. Mr. Lee’s Beijing orientation explains his confidence on this point. China’s one-party political state and entrepreneurial capitalist economics make it the most effective nation-state in the world, which explains why it has been astoundingly productive since adopting this policy in the 1970’s and will, with irs population dominance also, undoubted outpace the United States.  But “China” has existed in many forms as a continuous civilization for over five thousand years. It can also survive as something other than a nation-state, if need be, going forward, in large part because it harnesses its economic power to the government.

The Republican-Democratic divide is a side-show distraction from where the real tensions lie in this country, that is between a minimalist government caught up in reality T.V. drama, but to whom the populous looks for responsible government, and its corporate entities that transcend nation-state constraints and domestic responsibilities with every hour of their existence. In other words, I am not so confident that the United States will perform to the equal of the People’s Republic of China in a manner that Mr. Lee suggests. It lacks the requisite internal connections between its government and its economic base. 

That dysfunction may have the effect of dismantling the U.S.-China client-state organization of Mr. Lee’s future for global politics. In other words, the United States, notwithstanding its contemporary military dominance, is in no cultural shape to be either as aggressive or as managerial as it would have to be to realize his concept.  That may be Mr. Lee’s subtle point, however, because he ends his piece with this sentence. “These challenges are too far-ranging in their effects for any nation to isolate itself from the rest of the world.”  He may be more optimistic than I am. Me thinks, to quote Wordsworth, that Democrat or Republican, “The world is too much with us (U.S); late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

Setting aside teleology, Mr. Lee makes some fundamental points well worth pondering. First, AI s a whole quantum leap from “the internet,” even if we use that term to represent a world-historical phenomenon and not just a communication protocol technology.  Second, AI, like “the internet,” is going to have a profound economic, social and political impact globally. Only more so, if I read Mr. Lee correctly. Think of that impact as “the internet” on steroids, disruption of both a quantity and kind that renders “the internet” a dress rehearsal for what is to come.  Third, woe to those who fail to appreciate the need of comprehensive policy to address these extraordinary shifts.  If we, in the United States, could only get our heads out of the current political morass and begin to think more strategically, we might have a chance not merely to compete effectively in the global marketplace but once again to be a leader in areas of governance that other parts of the world respect. 

That may, or may not, be too much to ask; a lot will depend on how we begin to think about ourselves and the world going forward. For now, let’s begin change at home.  Higher education, think about our responsibilities to prepare students for this kind of future. Crashing into cliché’s during this season of high school graduations, the source of our entering class, youth are the hope for the future.  They rely on us to help direct their education to prepare them for the world to come. Let’s not confine ourselves to this morning’s headlines alone, all too frequently mired in sad and ridiculous rhetoric and lacking in substantive and genuinely helpful thoughts. We have ideas to share, informed political insights, social critiques, economic impacts, and above all ethics and a sense of vision to teach. 


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