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Will AI “Change the World” Or Simply Boost Profits?

The hype about artificial intelligence (AI) and its cousins Big Data and Machine Learning is ubiquitous, and largely unexamined. AI is going to change the world by freeing humankind from most of its labors, etc. etc. etc.

Let’s start by asking: who owns all this AI? This raises two other questions:who benefits as “software eats the world” (to use Marc Andreesen’s pithy phrase), and to what purpose is all this technology being applied?

The answers are painfully obvious: large global corporations, many of which function as quasi-monopolies (Facebook, Google et al.), are the owners of these new technologies, and the purpose being pursued is to maximize profits and secure a monopoly that insures high profits into the future.

The hype takes two predictable pathways, one Jetson-cartoonish euphoria and the other dystopian ruin. Self-driving vehicles will change the world in wonderful ways by eliminating the source of accidents: human error.

And that’s a nightmarish prospect because what will those millions of people currently driving vehicles do for a living?

Few people ask: who will profit from all this? Obviously, the manufacturers of self-driving vehicles and the owners of services which replace private vehicles.

The real race in AI is to secure profitable franchises and eliminate competitors by scaling up faster than other corporations.

This is why the market cheers Netflix burning billions of dollars every year: if they’re burning billions, they must be scaling up faster than competitors, and thus they will be the ultimate “winner” in the race to create and distribute mediocre content globally.

Consider the uses which corporate-owned AI has already been used to maximize profits: Facebook’s manipulation of its users’ data and content feeds and its selling of their data.

After a brief downturn due to fears of regulation, the market is back in love with Facebook’s immense profits, and Facebook’s stock is once again at record highs.

AI and Big Data collection is the profitable heart of Surveillance Capitalism, which includes Amazon’s gargantuan contracts with the National Security agencies and similar work being performed by many other lower-profile contractors (SAIC, et al.)

Rather than a Jetson-cartoonish world of intelligent robots doing all the work so we can all become poets and watch mediocre films all day long, what AI is doing in the real world is extracting profits from data collected from the populace either to market something more effectively or to control the populace more effectively.

The AI-robotics enthusiasts never seem to actually work in the AI-robotics industries. They are media types who extrapolate extrapolations without asking the key questions:who will own this technology, and to what purpose will it be applied?

We know the answers: global corporations and maximizing profits.

To dismantle just one part of the Jetson-cartoonish worldview of robots and AI becoming essentially free to everyone: fabricating a robot will never be free because robots require large quantities of energy and resources for their manufacture and maintenance. Even if human labor has been completely eliminated, the costs of extracting, refining and transporting resources remain, along with the costs of extracting the energy to do all this work as well as manufacture and assemble all the parts.

Eliminating human labor removes very little of the cost structure.

As for AI software being “free”– it will be free like the Android operating system and the Apple iOS: free to those developing profitable uses of corporately owned franchises.

In my worldview, AI has one purpose: eliminating bias and privilege. Properly programmed software won’t keep track of skin color or other sources of human bias.

The danger is corporately owned software tracks everything that can be used to market or control the populace, and this includes every nuance of bias and privilege.

The real battle isn’t between a cartoonish vision or a dystopian nightmare–it’s between decentralized ownership and control of these technologies and centralized ownership and control.

The CLIME system (as described in my book A Radically Beneficial World) is in effect a decentralized, distributed AI system that organizes a network of independently, democratically operated community groups that pay members to perform needed work in their communities.

Will AI be harnessed to maximize profits for the wealthy few, or will some thin, decentralized slice of these technologies actually serve unprofitable human needs?

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