In an introductory article discussing artificial intelligence, Memet Uludağ looks at the historical context around technological advancement and takes stock of some of the hype around AI. Will AI be the gamechanger it is being heralded as? To what extent will it change our societies? How will it affect work practices and workers?
Robots, automation, advanced software and computing power in many sectors, from heavy industries to finance, from healthcare to services, are not new.
From the beginning of the 20th century, we have seen numerous technological advancements. These continued with the massive developments in computing technology from the late 20th century onwards. Considering the level of automation in the 1980s and comparing it to what we see today, we could describe the pace of technology as mind-blowing. Today, the computing power of a large mainframe 20 years ago, fits into a smart phone. Cloud technologies coupled with super-fast computing power transformed the world of automation.
Approximately 347.3 billion emails are sent globally each day. An estimated 100 billion WhatsApp messages appear on our smartphones daily. There are 2.95 billion monthly active users on Facebook. Twitter has 368 million monthly active users worldwide. 1.8 billion people use Gmail. TikTok has 1 billion monthly users. Instagram is expected to hit 2.5 billion users by the end of 2023. Many of these platforms are highly automated, integrated and use advanced software technologies such as machine learning and AI. You can book a holiday from your Xbox console while playing the near-reality flight simulator game. Renewing your insurance policy is a matter of a few clicks. In some countries, your GP sends a digital code to your pharmacist, and you scan a QR code with your phone to purchase your medicine.
But no, the cost of medical care and medicine is not reducing. There are now apps that claim to bio-analyse your daily life cycle and make food/rest/physical activity recommendations to keep you fit and healthy. But no, the cost of food is still not reducing.
These days, there is a growing debate on AI in academia, science, arts and various industries. This debate ranges from deep technological analyses to social-political and ethical takes on AI.
Some of the greatest minds in mathematics, computer and data sciences are behind the developments in AI. But, as in the Oppenheimer scene where he meets President Truman and says, “he has blood on his hands” to which Truman replies, “the Japanese only care about he who dropped the bomb”, it is not these great advanced sciences and maths that are at the forefront of the AI debate, but voices for marketing and business opportunities.
When it comes to climate change, for example, technological advances are often presented as solutions to the crisis. But AI could actually pose an additional risk. High computing power for AI requires more energy consumption and this will have a direct effect on energy policies and the climate change agenda.
Putting aside the complex details of AI technology itself, there is a simple question: What does AI mean for capital and labour? In a wider sense, what does it mean for society in general? The answer to this question is far more complex than just a simple “good” or “bad”.
Sadly, whatever the context is, a huge majority of the AI discussions are led and dominated by capital. Trade unions and labour organisations are:
- Far behind in terms of understanding the world of AI
- Not fully up to speed in developing strategies and leading discussions in the interest of the working class they represent
AI is becoming a household term very fast. With that come the concerns of workers and people in general.
A 2023 Ipsos survey conducted in 31 Asian countries found that on average 52% are nervous about products and services that use AI. A 2023 Pew Research Centre report estimates that 19% of all U.S. jobs have a high exposure to AI.
Many U.S. workers in more exposed industries do not feel their jobs are at risk – they are more likely to say AI will help more than hurt them personally. For instance, 32% of workers in information and technology say AI will help more than hurt them personally, compared with 11% who say it will hurt more than it helps.
According to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the European Union (EU) AI Act contains little on workers’ rights. Europe will need a separate AI-labour law. The ETUC assessment is that the parliament failed to close a loophole which leaves workers’ safety and fundamental rights at risk. Unfortunately, beyond the top layers of the unions, there is not much engagement with the members concerned. The unions will have to learn from their members about the realities of AI on the ground.
There is so much to drill into AI in terms of social-political and economic consequences. Furthermore, for socialists, developing a class analysis is essential.
Will AI Cause Job Losses?
This is not an easy question. It depends. Did computerisation and automation of industries cause job losses? Yes, and no!
Take a simple example: Supermarkets and check-out counters. In any Tesco shop today, there are more self-checkout counters than human attended counters. There are more people buying tickets and checking in online for their flights than before. But looking at global population and employment figures, it seems, with the exceptions of major crises of capitalism, such as the global banking crisis of 2008/9 or the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of people in employment is not falling.
Maybe the question is not as black and white as “will AI cause job losses?” but more so, how will AI impact the jobs and workers? Will certain jobs disappear while others will emerge? Will certain sectors be more impacted than others? What is the impact?
Capital is in a competitive race to make the best use of AI for business efficiencies and drive profits upwards. The .COM boom more than 20 years ago was another technological race. The decades since the .com boom have seen many other technology-driven business models. One could argue that AI is a much bigger and fundamentally different shift than the advancements of the past decades. There is an element of truth in this, but where the world of AI will go will depend on much bigger and complex forces than just the capital’s race for technology. How will the working classes and their organisations respond? Will the technology race reduce or eliminate the recurrent crises of capitalism? Will the fundamentals of the capital-labour conflict and the deepening class antagonism disappear? How will capital make profit if the exploitation of labour is reduced or eliminated because – thanks to AI, we are told – labour is reduced or eliminated?
We are in a period of AI hype. Beyond those most prominent voices that fetishise or hate AI, or approach it from an academic-ethical perspective, are the real forces that will set the course for future. We are expected to think that AI is a fundamental game changer. So much so, it will create a new world. Will it really? How? Under what circumstances? Will AI invalidate the economic findings in the annual Oxfam reports? Take some headlines from 2023 Oxfam Survival of the Richest Report:
- Richest 1% bag nearly twice as much wealth as the rest of the world put together over the past two years.
- Super-rich outstrip their extraordinary grab of half of all new wealth in past decade.
- The richest 1 percent grabbed nearly two-thirds of all new wealth worth $42 trillion created since 2020, almost twice as much money as the bottom 99 percent of the world’s population.
- In 2019 the Oxfam Report found that World’s 26 richest people own as much as poorest 50%. 5 years before that, in 2014, world’s 85 richest had same wealth as all of bottom 50 percent.
Workers of the World Are Growing: But When Will They Unite?
Some facts on world population and employment (compiled from ILO, Word Bank, Statista, EU, IMF, UN) are important to consider while talking about technology and jobs.
Since the 90s, technology and automation is growing faster than ever. We are in a hyper-drive for technological development. The question of technology vs job losses has been a long running one. It emerged in car manufacturing plants, travel and finance sectors, sales, marketing, and others. With AI, this question has certainly taken a new significance.
The world population is numerically growing even though the growth rate is slowing down. From the global databases, it is evident that the number of people in employment is growing, too. The percentage of people in employment is not reducing.
As reported in the Irish media this year, Ireland’s labour market is tighter than ever as the number of people in employment rose to a record of 2,574,000 in the final quarter of 2022, an increase of 2.7pc over the previous year, according to the Central Statistics Office. This coincided with fast advancements in automation and self-service driven business models developed over more than a decade.
What Will Change the World?
In the 2nd Volume of Irish Marxist Review, I reviewed Paul Mason’s book, “Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions” – 2012. It is a book about the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, with a focus on Egypt.
In my review I had concluded that “it is well written and has undoubtedly been very influential, but it shares a key weakness of all but the very best journalism, namely it tends to be superficial and impressionistic in its analysis. It picks up on and elaborates on two of the most common ‘journalistic’ explanations of the wave of revolt: 1) that it is a generational thing; 2) that its other main driver is the use of social media.”
I added that, “The ‘iconic figure’ of the 25 January revolution – in Mason’s words – clearly explains the dynamics of building the struggle in Egypt, as reported in an article by Jonny Jones in the International Socialism Journal 130: “The idea that social media played a significant role in coordinating protests has been greatly exaggerated, according to the Egyptian activist Gigi Ibrahim. She points out that coordination between organisations tended to happen in face-to-face meetings. Facebook and emails had been used to call demonstrations in Egypt for a number of years – these protests were small. The incomparably larger mobilisations which followed 25 January were not because of some qualitative shift in the level of the Egyptian people’s engagement with social media. Rather the confidence people gained from the events in Tunisia combined with the systematic work activists put into leafleting and raising slogans in areas where few people would even have access to the Internet. This was dangerous work, with activists being arrested and beaten. But it was integral to the mass mobilisations in Tahrir Square and elsewhere”.
New Dangers, New Opportunities
The 21st century will undoubtedly bring further advancements in science and technology. Provided that we stop climate change and worsening disasters, these will certainly pose some dangers and provide benefits to humanity. These will certainly bring more productivity, faster profits and competitive advantages to capital. Furthermore, high-tech solutions such as AI will have an impact on workers and society in general. These are early days to make strong predictions. But what will shape the future of humanity will not be simply technology and high-tech but the forces that have been at conflict with each other since the dawn of capitalism. With AI there come new concerns and opportunities but the fundamentals of the class divisions and all that comes with it have not changed. What is more, horrors such as global inequality, imperialist conflicts, wars, exploitation and alienation are deepening.
The debate on AI must and will continue. This will certainly involve some immediate and other more fundamental matters such as labour and automation, exploitation, workers’ rights; ownership and control; public ownership and regulation; climate change; just transition and social-political impacts of AI. Underlying these is the class society we live in and our understanding of technology within the framework of class struggle.
Isn’t it great that we can book a holiday on our Xbox console, or that we can self-service our transactions on a website. Isn’t it horrible, with all that advancement in technology, massive human intelligence and the wealth, that there are millions of people that can’t have home, never mind playing Xbox and booking the next holiday.
And for millions of people, climate change related forced displacement is not a prospect in the distant future, but is a reality for them today.
Figure 1: Historical Employment Rates – Ireland (Percent)
Figure 2: Number of People Employed Globally (Billion)
Figure 3: World Population and Employment Numbers (Billion/%)