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‘Big data’ makes enough-for-all economy possible

Dave Ransom  |  Issue: June | July 2018

Most important question — Who will own the robots?

Now for the good news.

Speaking to a Los Angeles policy institute recently, a prominent Chinese legal scholar, Feng Xiang, concluded that artificial intelligence (AI) is “the most momentous challenge” facing society today.

Harvard-trained Feng is a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, China’s top technology university and key to its development of thinking machines. China is head to head with U.S. companies in AI.

Feng argues that if AI stays under the control of capitalist market forces, “it will inexorably result in a super-rich oligopoly of data billionaires who reap the wealth created by robots that displace human labor, leaving massive unemployment in their wake.” Feng thinks a socialist economy owned by all could provide a solution.

“If AI rationally allocates resources through big-data analysis,” Feng says, it could achieve “a planned economy that actually works.” The more that AI becomes an all-purpose technology, he says, “the less sense it makes to allow it to remain in private hands,” serving the few rather than the many.

A capitalist market economy works reasonably well as long as it creates jobs for most people, he says. “But when industry only produces joblessness, as robots take over more and more, there is no good alternative but for the state to step in.” Then AI will free the great majority of people from drudgery, “while creating wealth to sustain all.”

Feng isn’t the only one thinking down these lines. Massive job losses caused by technology could lead to mass unemployment and wage stagnation, says Canadian-born Mark Carney, head of the Bank of England, and that could cause the rise of communism.

Not to worry. Though the oligarchs have given communism a bad name, it actually refers to the sort of jointly-owned, “enough-for-all” society that Feng describes.

Indeed, instead of asking, “Will machines replace humans,” Oxford University economist Daniel Susskind says we should be asking “How will we distribute wealth in a world when there will be less work?” And the prestigious MIT Tech Review says the key question is, “Who will own the robots?”

Better us than the oligarchs.

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