OPINION: In the AI race, we should fear big tech companies, not machines

Feb 1, 2024 | OP-ED, Opinion

In the reckless race to develop new AI systems, society must fear not machines but who owns these new systems that are already upending jobs and workforces in a way never seen in history.

We should question the monopoly of giant technology corporations like Google, Meta and Microsoft and ensure that everyone can benefit equally from AI’s fruits and that these new technologies will indeed be pro-workers and not just pro-corporations.

AI was one of the main themes of the latest World Economic Forum (WEF), which every year hosts politicians, world leaders and CEOs from all over the world in Davos, Switzerland, who discussed the opportunities and risks that this new type of technology is posing and will pose even more in the future.

The bottom line that emerged from the five days of meetings in mid-January can be summed up in the words of IBM CEO Arvin Krishna, who said if workers embrace AI, then their daily tasks will be much more productive.

However, if they don’t, they will soon find out they no longer have a job.

This sounds like a threat.

According to a survey by Resume Builder, 44 per cent of companies said AI will lead to layoffs in 2024, and 37 per cent of those employing AI for their businesses say new technology replaced workers last year.

A research conducted by the Brookfield Institute in 2016 found that nearly 42 per cent of the workforce in Canada is at high risk of being affected by automation in the next decade or two that follows.

Furthermore, AI and automation are creating a new division of labour between humans and machines. The WEF reported this new work status will disrupt 85 million jobs globally from 2020 to 2025 and 44 per cent of workers’ skills between 2023 and 2028, a nine percentage points increase from its last five-year projection.

There won’t be an area of expertise that is out of reach from AI.

Humber College Digital and Popular Culture professor Chris Clemens said massive layoffs at Meta, X, and Shopify in Canada last year show the jobs are also shaved away from white collars jobs and not just blue collars.

“I think a lot of folks thought that the stuff related specifically to human management was going to be safe,” he said. “Now, we’re starting to see that AI and automation are challenging us in some sort of high concept area as well as just the sort of mechanical labour that we were hoping it would be limited to.”

In light of these and other studies, the threat sounds quite real.

Big tech companies frame the threat as inevitable: surrender to the new AI reality or prepare to be obsolete.

History shows something else, though. Since the early impact of technologies on capitalist societies, like the steam engine, power loom, and computers, technologies have developed according to the decisions made by those in power. In other words, by those who own and finance these types of technology.

History also shows that when the choices around new technologies are taken only by a small group of people who own the machines, those in power get all the benefits while workers and the rest of society bear the costs and the adverse effects.

Some jobs will be radically transformed and professionals will need to keep up and learn how to cooperate with AI, while other jobs will completely disappear.

That’s nothing new, but the problem that tech companies do not want to acknowledge concerns the fate of those who will be left behind and unable to adapt.

Clemens said the gains in productivity and efficiency could benefit many people, but corporations and the stockholders of AI systems are mostly experiencing them.

He said gains in productivity and efficiency brought by AI mostly benefit those at the top of corporations and their shareholders, while workers at the bottom fear to be sidelined due to staff cuts and AI replacements.

“Things are set up so that it’s going to put the squeeze on people and make them feel the negative repercussions of increasingly competitive attitudes around the jobs that remain,” Clemens said.

At present, workers are those who are more exposed to the negative effects of AI on workplaces, a technology introduced and carved by tech companies without any workforce involvement.

Based on these simple assumption, tech companies should be held accountable for every person who loses their job in the foreseeable future.

Since AI is going to change work as we know it radically, workers, both white and blue collars and everyone in between should get a seat at the table and participate in how best to steer AI in a humane and pro-worker direction.

In the article Choosing AI’s Impact on the Future of Work in the Standford Social Innovation Review, MIT professors Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson argue complete AI automation, an idea that currently dominates the US tech sector, might increase inequality among workers and professionals and reduce the number of good jobs just like previous forms of automation did in the last 40 years.

But that’s not inevitable.

The researchers point out how workers’ involvement in development and the use of new technologies is crucial because workers know better which part of their tasks would benefit from automation and which do not.

Civil society, unions and governments share the responsibility toward those whose lives will be drastically affected by AI, or we will be willing to accept casualties of an economic system that sacrifices workers at the altar of maximum productivity and efficiency.

If casualties are permitted, we need to recognize today is someone’s turn to lose their job, and our turn may come tomorrow due to further and unpredictable technological developments in which we did not participate.