Why you should care
Because this dude has one of the most thoughtful futurescopes we’ve ever seen.
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Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
Serial entrepreneur Jerry Kaplan has a long and, dare we say, legendary history in Silicon Valley, from founding the first online auction site (yep, before eBay) to pioneering the use of tablets and pen computing … back in the 1980s. Causation is always tough to tease apart from correlation, but we wager that spending so much time playing with artificial intelligence has only honed Kaplan’s human intelligence. He’s currently a CodeX fellow at Stanford, where for years he’s also taught a course on artificial intelligence. A few of those lectures led to his latest creation: A book called Humans Need Not Apply.
Lucid, playful and yet kind of dark, Kaplan’s book looks at the coming AI revolution and what it means for all of us as workers, citizens and investors. In a recent interview with OZY, Kaplan talked about who’s gonna make bank, who might starve, how to promote equality without raising taxes and why, despite all the innovation, many of us still feel like we work too much. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
OZY: Your book delves into how artificial intelligence and automation will change, or are changing, the world. Tell us a bit about that.
Jerry Kaplan: It obviously affects the labor market. The static view is that it just puts people out of work. That’s not totally the case. But it does change the nature of work. Automation increases overall wealth in society, so it tends to generate new kinds of jobs. But a lot of people can’t learn new skills and a lot of people may lose their jobs, and there will be fewer jobs available, temporarily. In the longer run, I’m reasonably confident we’ll be better off, but it can create short-term dislocations in labor.
And if you invest the money to automate, you’ll reap the advantages of that. What it will do is exacerbate income inequality. That’s a very serious issue in the United States — it’s not as appreciated as it should be — and it will have very serious consequences.
OZY: Like what?
J.K.: What I’ve realized in writing the book is that the entire system is stacked in favor of wealthy people. And I’m becoming more and more alarmed and disturbed as I realize that all kinds of profits and ways to profit through our policies are channeled to wealthy people. We need to reverse that if we’re going to have an equitable and just society. My argument in the book is that it doesn’t mean you have to tax the rich and give it to the poor. It’s that you need to figure out ways so that the newly created wealth is more broadly distributed.
OZY: How do you broadly distribute wealth without taxing the rich and giving it to the poor?
J.K.: We have a whole system — laws, conventions, policies — that sets the rules of the game. We can change the rules of the game in ways that encourage the outcomes we want. One idea I have is to change the corporate tax structure so it’s progressive. Your tax rate is lower if your company has broader ownership than if it has narrow ownership. A company like Microsoft is owned by millions of people, directly or indirectly, so that when Microsoft does well, all those people benefit. Other companies, like Bechtel, are owned mostly by one family. When they do well, it benefits just one family. If you graduate taxes in such a way that Microsoft gets a lower tax rate, the tax system will favor companies whose equity is broadly distributed.
Now, I’m not an economist. This might not work. But we need to change the guide rails of how the economy works, change the rules so that our politics are linked to our social agenda.
OZY: Whatever happened to the notion that as technology advanced, we’d do less work and have more leisure? Was that just some Keynesian fantasy?
J.K.: What we think of as leisure today is very different from what people thought of as leisure in previous generations. If you took someone from the 19th century, they’d look at you and say, You’re not working! You’re having fun and getting paid to do it.
OZY: Wait — that sounds like my father.
J.K.: Well, you have to understand that perspective. Someone from the 19th century [when most people spent most of their time in the fields] would look at you and say, This is ridiculous! If I were you, I’d work a couple of hours a week, build a shack out here in the wilderness, dig a hole for the outhouse and I’m livin’ large! You choose to do what you do. That’s optional.
OZY: Are other engineers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley thinking about this?
J.K.: The short answer is not enough. Many people are really concerned about these issues, but for the most part, if you’re going to be part of this community, you shut up and go along. Everyone out here thinks we’re doing God’s work — what could go wrong? I agree that automation is good in the long run, but it will have short-term effects. I’m not saying don’t do it, and I’m not saying regulate it, but just recognize what’s going on.
OZY: Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
J.K.: I’m totally optimistic! I just don’t know how many people are going to starve before we get to nirvana.