The success of ChatGPT has flung AI to the forefront of popular discourse. While many marvel at the feats this new technology is able to accomplish, there are a plethora of reasons to be apprehensive of the future it will help forge. For one, jobs are at risk. A 2021 PWC report on behalf of the UK government estimates that up to 30% of UK jobs could be at risk of automation by 2040. White collar workers in industries like financial services and the legal sector, long hailed as the 'winners' of globalisation, find themselves facing an uncertain future. Their jobs, once seen as insulated from automation, are now in the crosshairs of AI-driven disruption. This disruption will cause demographic shifts that will shape policymaking for years to come.
Historically, the negative consequences of globalisation and automation have disproportionately affected blue-collar workers, contributing to political shifts and the rise of populist movements. The decline of the Rust-Belt gave America Donald Trump. The deprivation of the Red Wall gave the UK Brexit and Boris Johnson. Now, as AI encroaches further into the white-collar realm, a new political coalition of workers could emerge. Professionals in industries like the legal sector and financial services, may find themselves in a similar position to their blue-collar counterparts, facing job displacement and diminished prospects. This disruption will reshape political alignments and mobilise support for policies that address the challenges posed by AI. To an extent it has already begun to do so.
One policy solution that has begun to blossom in recent years is Universal Basic Income. Previously regarded as a radical idea, the notion of providing a guaranteed income to all citizens regardless of employment status has gained renewed relevance. By providing a safety net to individuals whose jobs may be displaced, UBI offers a path to alleviate economic anxiety and ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth, thus alleviating the personal economic pressures created by widespread job losses. Just last week, Deepmind Co-Founder Mustafa Suleyman cited the policy as a potential solution to the huge job losses his creation could help cause. Suleyman argued that governments will need to provide for citizens whose jobs are destroyed or who find their wages depressed. “That needs material compensation . . . This is a political and economic measure we have to start talking about in a serious way.”
The policy isn’t without its problems. The largest barrier is very obvious: how would it be financed? However, with AI set to contribute an extra 10% to the UK economy by 2030, in spite of the likely job losses, and with income inequality having widened since the pandemic, redistribution would not be impossible.
Societal change doesn’t have to be so dystopian, of course. At least in the short term, as AI actually complements rather than replaces these workers, working conditions could improve, accelerating the shift towards hybrid working and the potential for four-day work weeks.
However, with tech figures like Google’s ‘Godfather of AI’ echoing Oppenheimer as they are horrified by the irreparable societal harm their creations could cause, it is essential to think forward about how we will respond to this transformation, for better or worse. AI’s disruption will be as political as it is economic, and Universal Basic Income is just one potential answer to what is likely to become an era defining question: when machines do it better, what becomes of us?