From Covid to AI: A History of the Transformation of Human Society

First Covid, then distance working and now Artificial Intelligence. We are living a social revolution with unprecedented consequences

A topical point discussed at dinner tables today is something which raises eyebrows and which raises even more questions about the future of humankind and our socio-economic systems. While everyone is today concentrating on the closing of the soccer championships in Europe amid glances at how long the conflict in Ukraine is going to last, an éminence grise lurks on the horizon: Artificial Intelligence. Regardless of club, creed, race or flag, maybe it is time for us all to huddle together and listen up.

Covid and missed opportunities

For an intelligent species, Covid would have been a wake-up call. It reminded us of simple acts to contain the spread of a vírus, namely hand sterilising, social distancing, wearing masks and not touching the face. Three years later, on my plane trips this year I have been so far the only one using a mask and indeed many passengers were looking at me as if I was some kind of whackjob. Social distancing has gone, sterilising has gone, wearing masks has gone. Back to normal. Wait until NIPAH strikes. Watch this space.

Covid also gave us a useful tool to implement in our workplaces, namely distance working platforms. The good news is that ZOOM, giving its name to Generation Z, Teams and others, provided companies with the possibility of having meetings in real time without the expense of travelling up and down the country or criss-crossing the world. The good news is that these platforms allowed companies to increase their client base outside the immediate geographical area and to hire employees from the four corners of the Earth, who were formerly off the radar, while job seekers saw their universe expand exponentially.

Distance working platforms

The good news is that with distance working platforms, people have more time for family, for leisure and even for work (without commuting, they probably work longer hours), although labour legislation has to ensure that abusive forces do not take unfair advantage of the situation. Indeed with less traffic, there is less pollution and in many cities, animals have suddenly appeared where nobody had seen them before.

Flexitime and Flexischedule

Again, not everyone has grasped the opportunity with both hands and the more conservative companies have gone back to in-person, presential work where everyone is yet again crammed into tiny office spaces and likely to catch Covid. Until it morphs into something worse again. While the more enlightened IT companies have closed the office and saved in overheads, many others have at least adopted a 2-3, or a 2-3-3-2 hybrid system (two days at home, three at work; two at home and three at work one week and three at home and two at work the other). Flexitime has turned into Flexischedule.

If we can take the travel industry as an indicator of the wider economy, the statistics indicate that while business trips are down (fewer customers for plane tickets, taxis, hotel stays, restauration) the number of people travelling has exceeded 2019 pre-Covid levels. Therefore, we may conclude that digital communications platforms have been a success, permitting more flexibility, a wider front of attack for companies and greater chances of employment while not eating into the job market.

So far, so good. The medical community has learnt how to tailor vaccines to virus variants, we can stay at home and create a Zen space for working, with some imagination, or turn the car into a home office to avoid a war between 5 screaming kids, a barking dog, a wailing cat and a screeching canary flying up the walls.

AI. What the...?

Enter frontstage AI, Artificial Intelligence. Now this Chatgpt is something else. It has informed me how best to invest 100 dollars, it has told me how to enter a country illegally by submarine, it has told me what to do if my son swallows a cow, or if a cow swallows my daughter, it has written me some pretty decent copy for a real-life challenge creating 27 different but similar texts to market Chinese elevators in African cities, it writes essays for students. Some say it composes a doctoral thesis. Like, what the...?

And this is the tip of the iceberg. So with automation decimating jobs in factories, with digitalisation decimating jobs in offices, now with AI, we can see that Professor Yuval Noah Harari’s prediction that by the 2030s many University courses would be obsolete, is absolutely true. Another Professor, Stephen Hawking, warned that at the moment AI is not a threat, but when it gets the chance to improve itself, it will be.

While many have called for AI researchers to pause until we can legislate and create checks and balances, the point is that you cannot stop the development of Science. My mother used to say that the Internet should never have been invented, but it was and now it is here to stay, whether we like it or not (and she did not).

Job Market shaken, not stirred

The same goes for Artificial Intelligence. But let us think about the looming socio-economic revolution that comes with this. We can say that AI is the cutting edge of automation and digitalisation and that if the latter two have made deep inroads into employment, then Artificial Intelligence will relegate countless thousands to the realm of the unemployed. Daily. The job market will be shaken, not stirred.

And then, we may ask, and let’s start at the beginning, what jobs are my children going to do? How long will they last? Think about it. Who is going to contribute, in taxation, to the social kitty for healthcare, policing, education and so on? True, managing a country is not about moving coins around on an exchequer board but rather, managing borrowed money from markets, not managing wealth but managing debt but the higher the taxation, the lower the PSBR (Public Sector Borrowing Requirement). The lower the income from taxation, the higher the PSBR, and the more probable the economy will move downwards, followed by a downgrading due to our wonderful Free Market Economy economic system regulated by Agencies.

So how do we finance schools, healthcare, policing? How do we pay to keep our kids educated and prepared for the future, how do we ensure quality treatment and hospital beds for those who need them, in good time, how do we keep our streets safe?  Artificial Intelligence may give us the answer on the screen, but only after it has purged the jobs of those who man the parapets of the castle. Artificial Intelligence will perform Excel sheet management style, where the word Person does not fit in the bottom line.

How will youngsters be able to afford to rent or buy a house? Will they live with their parents eternally? If so, then how many families will continue having kids? Who is going to finance public services? To what extent does immigration tick the boxes? 

Our grandparents frequently said they were “one of fifteen” or “one of six”. That was a time when families had to bear the experience of losing one or two babies. But fifteen paid the pensions of two, or six paid the pensions of two. Retirement was set at 65 because back then the average life expectancy for a man was 69. Now it is in the eighties in most countries. And increasing. As also healthcare costs increase.

The reality today is that states cannot afford, under this system, to finance the services they provide without borrowing. This imbalance can only rise with a haemorrhage of jobs and the ensuing decrease in income for the Treasuries.

With people living longer, with fewer jobs available, we will have to ask the economists to do what they are supposed to do, meaning coming up with some fresh ideas. They could revise the social system which provided public services for free, including housing, education, healthcare, leisure time activities, utilities, transportation, even food and drink. As basic requirements. How do we fund aging societies with fewer and fewer Jobs, when the Free Market Economy is blind to social protection schemes? We are not talking politics here, we are talking basic arithmetic.

Or they could continue with the current system of social terrorist policies which are governed by a Market economy fetish and along with it, experience all the ensuing social ills, running headlong towards the cliff like a slice of lemmings.

Food for thought...

You can contact Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey at [email protected]








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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey