AI and the Next Economy

On an otherwise ordinary day in May 1997, chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov sat across from his opponent locked in the sixth and final game of their match. 19 moves in, Kasparov shockingly conceded the first-ever defeat of his career. But not to another human, to a computer: IBM’s Deep Blue. For the first time in history, human intelligence had been defeated by an artificial one. While some may say it was just a loss in a game, Green Alpha believes Kasparov’s defeat by AI has large scale implications in what it can teach us about humanity’s ability to solve its biggest problems.

With respect to solving for looming global risks, we might first contemplate whether humanity can really actualize a viable and secure future. In trying to envision an economy that has learned how to work and grow indefinitely, without succumbing to dangers emerging from the climate crisis, eroding social cohesion, and resource loss and degradation, the role of both narrow and general artificial intelligences must be considered. AI is already in the world, and any application that can be developed, will be. More importantly, we simply need the powerful innovative capabilities AI can bring to human endeavors. To solve our biggest problems, resistance to technological change is a non-starter. 

One of the main attributes that persuades Green Alpha of the necessity of AI in achieving a sustainable economy is its sheer computational power. The Earth, its climate, and its resource dynamics are closed systems; enormously complex systems, but still more or less closed. Even so, humanity left to its own devices has never come close to understanding, much less managing, these systems sustainably. Human intelligence will never be able to grasp the billions of variables simultaneously at play in the climate without more advanced tools. 

Kasparov has reflected that, “closed, complex systems are inevitably cracked by increases in computer power.” Chess is clearly much less complex than the economy or the climate, but then again, so were the computers in 1997. He pointed out that Deep Blue “didn’t have to solve chess – brute force analysis at fast speeds turned out to be enough.” This is exactly what narrow AI does, and what it is made for. AI can work faster, cheaper, and more safely than humans alone ever could; it “empowers us to be more creative and strategic; tech doing our work is the whole history of human progress.” 

Climate science is much more complicated than the economy, and so far, even the best supercomputers haven’t replicated it very well. But a more advanced special purpose AI dedicated to modeling climate—one which could help us know what will happen at the local level as global warming advances—should, and dare we say will, ultimately be developed. The fine-grained understanding of causes and outcomes this kind of AI could provide would help drive decisions to both prevent and respond to future climate events. Existing tools lack this power, and AI could fill the void. 

As powerful as the application of AI to solve humanity’s predicaments is, some argue against utilizing  artificial intelligence because it takes away jobs people need. While we can’t deny AI does replace some human jobs, those jobs are very often dangerous and monotonous. This perspective also doesn’t take into account that using AI for certain tasks allows human intelligence and creativity to be used for other, and arguably more important, work. Workers have been and will be displaced by innovation; yet, the same innovations ultimately generate new work and greater productivity. Technological advancements and innovations have been doing this for over a century. Studies by PwC and others have estimated that the use of AI will increase global GDP 26% by the year 2030. This means more jobs to be filled and a growing global economy; today’s labor market, which has more jobs than employees to fill them, illustrates this nicely.  

Humanity lives under huge hazards, but they can be minimized—even solved—by responsible innovation in fields like energy, biotech, and artificial intelligence. The innovations we leverage, and how we leverage them, will be key factors in determining whether we concede defeat or are empowered in our human progress. 

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