The Keys to Surviving the AI Revolution

By Kai-Fu Lee | 12 October 2018

(Credit: Dreamstime)

While the industrial revolution historically increased the number of jobs available by transforming the work of skilled craftsmen into more accessible, routine jobs like those on an assembly line, the AI revolution will completely replace the assembly line jobs.

With American researchers leading AI discoveries and Chinese engineers leading AI implementations, these two superpowers will bring about the fastest and greatest technological revolution ever.

The Future of Work

In this human-machine symbiosis created by the free market, we would inch our society ahead in a direction of being a little kinder and a little more loving. Moreover, the emergence of compassionate caregivers would dramatically increase both the number of jobs and the total amount of medical care given.

Today, the scarcity of trained doctors, and the high cost of medical education, drives up the cost of healthcare and drives down the amount of quality care delivered around the world. As a result, we sometimes avoid seeing doctors when we should, it takes too long to schedule appointments, and there are many poorer areas that just don’t have sufficient healthcare.

Compassionate caregivers can come from a larger pool of workers, with much faster training and thus lower cost. As a result, society will be able to cost-effectively support far more compassionate caregivers than there are doctors, and we would receive far better care, and more of it.

Service jobs — jobs that require a lot of interaction with people, demonstration of empathy and communication skills, and a need to win trust from other people — may not be paid professions. For example: a parent who chooses to homeschool his or her children, or volunteers at a foster home or a hotline. Whether paid or unpaid, these services are valuable to our society, and they are not doable by AI.

What Needs To Be Done

With the rapid rise of AI, and the shifting tides in the future of work, here is what needs to be done as individuals, in our society, and in government:

As Individuals

We should accept that the routine jobs are going away. For young people in these routine jobs, start now by finding careers that fit your strengths and that are not easily replaced by AI. For older people, when early retirement is offered to you, consider accepting, with gig economy and volunteering to make some income and live a life you enjoy.

We should encourage more people to go into service careers, choosing jobs into which they can pour their hearts and souls, spreading their love and experiences.

We should embrace AI tools, especially for professionals, understanding that they will get better with more data and use. We should use these tools to do parts of our jobs, allowing them to do more of our routine tasks, freeing us to move into areas that are more suitable for humans.

We should encourage all kinds of creativity beyond the sciences: painting, architecture, music, poetry, acting, storytelling, PR, and marketing.

In Our Society

Blackrock founder Larry Fink wrote a monumental letter called “A Sense Of Purpose,” calling for corporations to not just wait for governments to prepare for the future, but for every company to serve a social purpose.

Large companies should establish and fund serious corporate social responsibility efforts and take steps to help society transition into the age of automation and the future of work.

Corporations with a large workforce facing displacement should introduce employee training programs. These involve training employees for emotional quotient and soft skills, reimbursement for online training, and developing a culture of lifelong learning.

Service industries should develop clear career ladders for service professionals and share best practices and role models so that we attract more people to this large and more sustainable industry.

Investment companies should look at impact investment, not just investing in stocks or tech start-ups, but investing in companies with social impact. These companies, typically service companies, can have decent but not exponential growth and can provide lasting employment to large numbers of people. Such investments may not yield the highest returns but should be done as pro bono.

Educational institutions should rethink their roles. Rote learning will only lead to graduates who are easily replaced by AI. Schools need to teach about emotional quotient including communication, teamwork, winning trust, and empathy. Students should be encouraged to pursue their passion, and teaching should become more personalized.

Schools should embrace STEM education and find prodigies who will become the inventors of the next breakthroughs in AI, neurobiology, genomics, materials, energy, or basic sciences.

We as a society need to start shifting our culture and values. We have been conditioned to believe that our primary role in society (and even our identity) is found in wage-earning work.

As we transition from the industrial age to the AI age, we will need to move away from a mindset that equates work-for-pay with life. Instead, we must move toward a new culture that values human love, service, and compassion more than ever before.

In Government

Governments must proactively seize the opportunity that the material wealth of AI will grant us, use it to reconstruct our economies, and rewrite our social contracts. At the same time, governments need to prepare for, and deal with, increasing economic inequality and displacement of jobs due to AI.

I have five suggestions for the government:

1. First, provide minimum basic services, or MBS. This includes food, shelter, healthcare, and education.

One might ask: why not universal basic income, or UBI? To start, UBI is unnecessarily costly. Also, if all people get paid without working, and AI appears to replace all routine jobs, people will be prone to depression or substance abuse. Finally, even if people were to spend their UBI on self-enrichment or entrepreneurship, the AI environment is new and constantly changing. They need more hand holding in such dynamic times.

2. Second, develop a new Social Investment Stipend, or SIS. On top of minimum basic services, this stipend will provide a respectable salary and career if participants commit sufficient time to one or more of three things: care, service, and education. For care, eligibility for the SIS will include demonstrating substantial work in caring for other people and helping them live their lives to the fullest.

For service, those eligible for the SIS would do the equivalent of volunteer jobs such as environmental remediation, after-school programs, or answering hotlines. For education, eligibility for the SIS will require completing training courses for the survivable jobs of AI, from AI testing engineer, to social work, to elderly care.

By requiring some social contribution in order to receive the stipend, we would foster a far different ideology than the laissez-faire individualism of a UBI. Providing a stipend in exchange for participation in prosocial activities reinforces a clear message: all of us contributed to reach this AI-driven economic abundance. We are now collectively using that abundance to recommit ourselves to one another, reinforcing the bonds of compassion and love that make us human.

The MBS and the SIS together form the beginnings of our new social contract.

3. Governments should help quantify job displacement risks and actively help people find their new beginning. They should support schools, training centers, and unemployment offices to eliminate outdated training programs and develop new ones.

For example, truckers may be in high demand now, but these jobs will go away. Construction jobs will transition modular assembly and final finish. Auto mechanic jobs will go down, but plumber jobs will stay a long time. Companies in those fields should prepare accordingly.

4. Governments need to stop thinking about AI as a cold war. AI is not a weapon. It is an omni-use technology that can enable or disrupt any industry and any company. In this sense, our current AI boom shares far more with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution or the invention of electricity than with the arms race of the Cold War.

5. Finally, we need globalism back — In the face of all the challenges from AI, countries need to share and help each other because no single country will have all the answers. We want to draw from a diverse source of wisdom from many countries and cultures.

We can look to Korea’s embrace of gifted and talented education. We can look to the cultures of craftsmanship in Switzerland and Japan. We can look to the vibrant cultures of volunteering in countries like Canada and the Netherlands. And we can look to Chinese culture for how to care for elders and for how to foster intergenerational households.

As public policy and personal values blend, we should really take the time to study new experiments in defining and measuring progress, such as Bhutan’s decision to pursue “Gross National Happiness” as a key development indicator.

We are not passive spectators in the story of AI — we are the authors of it. That means the values underpinning our visions of an AI future could well become self-fulfilling prophecies. If we tell ourselves that the value of human beings lies solely in their economic contribution, then we will capitulate in the face of ever more powerful AI.

We need to embrace AI and use AI tools to amplify our creativity and our contributions to society. We need to let go of routine jobs and focus on what truly makes us human: loving and being loved. And, finally, we need to come together, working across class boundaries and national borders to write our own ending to the AI story.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Kai-Fu Lee, the founder of the Beijing-based Sinovation Ventures, is ranked #1 in technology in China by Forbes. Sinovation Ventures, managing US$2 billion dual currency investment fund, is a leading technology-savvy investment firm focusing on developing the next generation of Chinese high-tech companies. It is one of the first Chinese ventures firms establishing a presence and investment practice in the U.S. Educated as a computer scientist at Columbia and Carnegie Mellon, Dr. Lee’s distinguished career includes working as a research scientist at Apple; Vice President of the Web Products Division at Silicon Graphics; Corporate Vice President at Microsoft and founder of Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing, one of the world’s top research labs; and then Google Corporate President and President of Google Greater China. As an Internet celebrity, he has fifty million+ followers on the Chinese micro-blogging website Weibo. As an author, among his seven bestsellers in the Chinese language, two have sold more than one million copies each. His first book in English is AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. Follow him on Twitter @kaifulee and Facebook.

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