(MENAFN - Daily Outlook Afghanistan) It is more than 500years since Sir Thomas More found inspiration for the 'Kingdom of Utopia whilestrolling the streets of Antwerp. So, when I traveled there from Dubai in Mayto speak about artificial intelligence (AI), I couldn't help but draw parallelsto Raphael Hythloday, the character in Utopia who regales sixteenth-centuryEnglanders with tales of a better world.
As home to theworld's first Minister of AI, as well as museums, academies, and foundationsdedicated to studying the future, Dubai is on its own Hythloday-esque voyage.Whereas Europe, in general, has grown increasingly anxious about technologicalthreats to employment, the United Arab Emirates has enthusiastically embracedthe labor-saving potential of AI and automation.
There are practicalreasons for this. The ratio of indigenous-to-foreign labor in the Gulf statesis highly imbalanced, ranging from a high of 67% in Saudi Arabia to a low of11% in the UAE. And because the region's desert environment cannot supportfurther population growth, the prospect of replacing people with machines hasbecome increasingly attractive.
But there is also adeeper cultural difference between the two regions. Unlike Western Europe, thebirthplace of both the Industrial Revolution and the 'Protestant work ethic,Arab societies generally do not 'live to work, but rather 'work to live,placing a greater value on leisure time. Such attitudes are not particularlycompatible with economic systems that require squeezing ever more productivityout of labor, but they are well suited for an age of AI and automation.
In the industrializedWest, technological forces threaten social contracts that have long rested onthe three pillars of capital, labor, and the state. For centuries, capitalprovided investment in machines, workers operated the machines to produce goodsand services, and governments collected taxes, furnished public goods, andredistributed resources as needed. But this division of labor created a socialsystem that is far more complicated than those of the Arab world and othernon-industrialized economies.
For their part, Arabstates have nationalized natural resources, managed major industries, tradedinternationally, and distributed surplus resources to society. Until recently,population growth and declining revenues from natural resources thus threatenedthe social contract. But with technologies that can produce and distribute mostof the goods and services required by what is essentially a leisure society,the existing social contract could actually be enhanced, rather than disrupted.
Back in the West, thetechnological revolution appears to have widened the gap between capital ownersand everyone else. While productivity has been increasing, labor's share oftotal income has shrunk. Apart from the capital owners, a leisure class ofyuppies and heirs has also captured a sizable share of the surplus created byproductivity-enhancing technologies. The biggest losers are those with lowincomes and less education.
Yet, even here,focusing on AI's potential impact on the relationship between capital andemployment is shortsighted. After all, populism has surged in many Westerncountries at a time of near-historic lows in unemployment. Arguably, thecurrent discontent reflects a desire for a better quality of life, not morework. The French 'yellow vest protesters were initially responding to policiesthat would have raised the costs of their commutes; the Britons who voted toleave the European Union were hoping that contributions to the bloc would beredirected to public services at home. Most anti-globalization and anti-immigrationrhetoric is born of an anxiety about crime, cultural change, and otherquality-of-life issues, not jobs.
The problem is that,under the Western social contract, a desire for more leisure can translate intomutually incompatible demands. Voters want reduced working hours but higherincomes, and they expect governments to continue generating enough tax revenueto provide health care, pensions, and education. It is little wonder thatWestern politics has come to an impasse.
Fortunately, AI anddata-driven innovation could offer a way forward. In what could be perceived asa kind of AI utopia, the paradox of a bigger state with a smaller budget couldbe reconciled, because the government would have the tools to expand publicgoods and services at a very small cost. The biggest hurdle would be cultural:As early as 1948, the German philosopher Joseph Pieper warned against the'proletarianization of people and called for leisure to be the basis forculture. Westerners would have to abandon their obsession with the work ethic,as well as their deep-seated resentment toward 'free riders. They would haveto start differentiating between work that is necessary for a dignifiedexistence, and work that is geared toward amassing wealth and achieving status.The former could potentially be all but eliminated.
With the rightmindset, all societies could start to forge a new AI-driven social contract,wherein the state would capture a larger share of the return on assets, anddistribute the surplus generated by AI and automation to residents.Publicly-owned machines would produce a wide range of goods and services, fromgeneric drugs, food, clothes, and housing, to basic research, security, andtransportation.
Some will view theseoutlays as unjustified market intervention; others will worry that thegovernment might fail to meet public demand for various goods and services.But, again, such arguments are shortsighted. Given the pace of advances in AIand automation, state-owned production systems – operating nonstop – will havean almost unlimited supply capacity. The only limitation will be naturalresources, a constraint that would continue to drive technological innovationin search of more sustainable management.
In an AI utopia,government intervention would be the norm, and private production theexception. The private sector would correct for government or collectivefailures, rather than the government correcting for market failures.
Imagine travelingforward in time to 2071, the UAE's centenary. A future Raphael Hythlodayvisiting Antwerp from Dubai would bear the following news: Where I live, thegovernment owns and operates the machines that produce most necessary goods andservices, allowing the people to spend their time on leisure, creative, andspiritual pursuits. All worries about employment and tax rates have beenconsigned to the past. That could be your world, too.