Here’s your future: AI disasters and the end of capitalism

Cisco says AI capitalism no future predictions
Image credit: Wavebreakmedia

You want end-of-year predictions? Here’s two to chew on: in 2020 at least one telco will be embarrassed by AI, and in 2030, capitalism will be kinda dead.

As we wrap up not only 2019 but the ‘10s in general, my inbox is full of predictions of trends for 2020 and the ‘20s in general.

And, yes, I know, ho hum. Most industry predictions are dead easy if you pay even a little attention and aren’t trying to sell whatever product your predictions are centered around. Watch:

You’re going to see a lot more 5G, AI, fintech and digital transformation in 2020.

Boom. See? Easy.

But I have recently come across a couple of predictions – one for 2020 and one for 2030 – that are actually worth keeping in mind.

2020: AI will embarrass at least one of you

The 2020 prediction is from analytics firm FICO: sometime next year, a CSP will make headlines for a project involving AI – in a bad way.

Telecoms players will be increasingly adopting AI in some form or other in the next year, to include automation of certain business processes. There’s just one problem: AI is only as good as the algorithm you design, the data you feed into it and the amount and quality of training. Get something wrong, and your AI could result in some very bad decisions, says Mel Prescott, FICO’s Telecoms Practice principal consultant.

For example, AI has already been shown to have problems with things like race and gender bias. If you deploy AI as a way to screen potential new hires, or pitching new offers to customers, and the AI favors men over women, or one race over another, the result could be embarrassing.

Just ask Apple, whose credit card launch was marred by news that the AI behind it was issuing larger lines of credit to men rather than women. And because AI tends to be a bit of a black box, Apple was at a loss to explain how the algorithm worked or why it produced the results it did.

The lesson, says Prescott, is simple: if a Big Tech name like Apple can screw up AI, you can too.

This is a subset of a much broader issue we’re going to be seeing in 2020: AI ethics. Specifically, there will be a lot of debate over bias, explainability, privacy and other AI issues, and whether the solution is simply better algorithms or deliberately excluding AI from certain decisions.

The current debate over facial recognition is an easy example that’s seeing some pushback. My favorite example of this is in the city of Shaoxing, China, where contractors installed security gates in residential buildings that require facial recognition to enter. Residents reportedly responded by propping the gates open with boards, bricks and wire.

So yes, expect more of that in 2020.

2030: Gen Z will dance on capitalism’s grave singing hallelujah

As for predictions on how the 2020s will go, here’s my favorite: in 2030 capitalism will be dead. Probably. Sort of. And not in a good way.

I say “in a good way” because John Maynard Keynes once wrote an essay in the early 1930s [PDF] in which he predicted that capitalism would last until approximately 2030, by which time society in general would have (via capitalism) found ways to ensure that basic needs are fulfilled, and that the work needed to sustain a thriving economy would be automated to the point where no one would need to work to survive, and capitalism would no longer be necessary.

With 2030 just ten years away, that’s great news for Gen Z, right?

Wrong. According to this essay from Malcolm Harris, Gen Z is instead inheriting a world of worsening wealth inequality, high-pressure working conditions, stagnant wages and ecological disaster in the form of climate change, which comes with its own economic implications, whether in the form of heavy-handed regulation or taking no action whatsoever.

As you may have noticed, the kids are none too happy about that. Greta Thunberg has famously derided the inability and/or unwillingness of governments and corporations to tackle climate change within the constraints of modern capitalism, offering “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” in the face of a mass-extinction event.

She’s not alone, says Harris: ever since the 2008 financial crisis, polls indicate more young people are increasingly giving up on capitalism as a viable way forward:

The kids recognize that capitalism has been using up human and natural resources rather than building a better society. Rather than a mere reaction to the housing crash and global warming, we can see a deep, emergent understanding. Much to everyone’s surprise, Keynes’s grandchildren have become Marxists.

Personally, I think that’s a bit of an overstatement, if only because Gen Z is not a collective hive mind – which is to say, not everyone in Gen Z has identical opinions about capitalism (or anything else). But it’s fair to say this latest generation isn’t enamored with capitalism as we know it and has no interest in preserving the status quo.

Does it mean the end of capitalism? Harris doesn’t say – only that change is coming, whether we like it or not.

I think he’s right. I also think the current beneficiaries of capitalism will fight tooth and nail to preserve it as is, whether out of greed, ideology or bloody-mindedness. And of course they’ll fail, just as the music industry failed to stop digital downloads, etc and so on. But their resistance could make things worse.

Or maybe it won’t make a difference. Who knows?

But whether the end result looks like Sweden or Mad Max 2, capitalism as we know it will evolve into something else. It has to. We can only hope it will be something better.

How’s that for disruptive?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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