“What job is safe?” - Jeff Booth on the impact of AI on employment

Jeff Booth, entrepreneur and author of The Price of Tomorrow, joins Opto Sessions to discuss the exponential growth of AI and its deflationary impact on the global economy. He explains that the technology could ultimately displace all human work — and why that isn’t a problem.

Jeff Booth’s philosophy is rooted in the idea that technological advancement increases economic productivity and, therefore, over time, reduces costs.

Entrepreneurs are constantly on the look-out for sectors that are still relatively untouched by new technologies. These sectors offer the highest margins since the impact of technology has yet to push down prices.

Technology, in other words, is deflationary, which exacerbates a problem at the heart of the current economic system, namely, that the global economy is built on unworkable levels of debt. In his 2020 book, The Price of Tomorrow, Booth observes that, between 2000 and 2020, it took $185trn of new debt to create $46trn of global GDP growth.

This, in its own right, is unsustainable, but technology’s deflationary influence will make it even more unsustainable going forward. Artificial intelligence (AI) technology is advancing, Booth says, at an exponential rate. This means that if we want to negate the deflationary impact of AI, “our debt and our manipulation of money has to move at the corresponding exponential rate”.

Labour displacement

“Human intelligence is just error correction,” Booth says, quoting The Price of Tomorrow. “Human intelligence is being moved into computers at a very fast rate.”

AI is already displacing labour. He cites the example of Sanctuary AI, a company that produces general-purpose robots: “These robots can do most things humans can do. But when you tell them to operate a store, they don’t do a single task, like a cashier at a store or automatic checkout. They run the entire store — they determine when I should offload the truck, when I should load shelves, when I should do cashier work.”

Booth says that Sanctuary AI’s management predicts that, within three years, these robots will cost businesses $5 per hour, highlighting the deflationary effect of the technology.

The productivity gains of AI don’t just translate into lower prices; however, they also displace labour.

Booth refutes the notion that AI will create more jobs than it will replace. “Those people that are saying that either haven’t worked in the free market… or they have not thought through what’s happening.

“If your labour is going to be $5 an hour, and it doesn’t need a coffee break, and it doesn’t need union fees, and it’s more intelligent than you, what job is safe?”

“If your labour is going to be $5 an hour, and it doesn’t need a coffee break, and it doesn’t need union fees, and it’s more intelligent than you, what job is safe ”

A new world

However, his stance is not as bleak as it may appear on the surface.

“Why do we need the job in the first place?” he asks. The abundance of goods that AI and other technological developments have the potential to realise could preclude the need for humans to work altogether.

“Why don’t we have jobs for people to pass around oxygen to us? It would seem ludicrous, right? Because oxygen is abundant.

“We’re supposed to benefit from technology doing the labour as prices fall to the marginal cost of production… the problem is, we live in a system that has convinced us that we have to work more and more and more to be able to get more.”

In a world in which all production is automated, Booth argues, “Food can be free. Energy can be free.”

He acknowledges that a world like this is hard for us to envisage because “there’s no history book” providing us with a reference as to how it might look. On the contrary, it is closer to science fiction — Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, for example, is set in a utopian future where technology, in particular, AI, has removed the need for humans to work.

The transition, Booth acknowledges, will be messy, especially for those unable or unwilling to adapt. “The world is going to be a mirror of your beliefs. If you believe in the existing system, then the mirror back to you will create, some would suggest, a lot of pain.”

For those who are open to the changes he sees ahead, however, Booth believes a utopian future awaits...

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