How AI Reshapes Our Identities, Social Order

Jul 29 , 2023
By Harold James

The rapid march of artificial intelligence (AI) is not only disrupting conventional notions of work. It is also changing the essence of human identity. Whereas previous technological developments altered human behaviour and appearances, AI will fundamentally reshape individuals' core social and political beliefs, including about the nature and role of the state.

In the 19th Century Industrial Revolution, mechanical power – mostly fueled by burning carbon – replaced human and animal power as a source of energy to be used in the transformation of nature and the production of industrial and consumer goods. As the revolution matured in the 20th Century, hard physical labour was left to only a dwindling group of occupations.

For a glimpse of most pre-industrial work, look at roofers, who today are still exhausted and worn out by toiling in the elements in uncomfortable, distorting physical positions. They are preserving in the 21st Century what was once a general experience. Early 20th-century automobile workers bent over their tools, lifted heavy objects, and applied huge amounts of energy. Their early 21st-century counterparts look at monitors and track the robots who have taken over the heavy physical tasks.

As the sweat economy has disappeared, working people have become weaker, but also healthier. Those who want to retain some physical strength now go to the gym.

The information-technology revolution represented another step in this human development. As machines have taken over more cognitive tasks, computers now monitor the robots doing the physical work. With the elimination of mental work (like the complex arithmetic that shop assistants used to perform), the same old pattern has continued: many people have stopped thinking at work and devoted those energies to crossword puzzles, sudoku, or Wordle.

Today's revolution goes much further because it affects how collective activity is conceptualised. This development is perhaps clearest in the military, but it also has implications for political participation and our understanding of legitimate authority.

The 20th Century was marked by the most destructive wars in human history, which in turn produced a new impulse to democratise. Since soldiers and their families needed to be rewarded for their sacrifices, both World Wars led to an extension of the franchise. Classical political liberalism held that people should not be expected to sacrifice their lives for a specific political entity unless they had some say in the matter.

But technology offers a way to short-circuit this process.

Around the world, educated urban populations are increasingly not expected to engage with the brutal side of human affairs. Consider Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has relied on semi-autonomous mercenary groups, peripheral populations, and even prisoners to wage his war in Ukraine, because he knows that the populations of Moscow and St. Petersburg are physically and – more importantly – psychologically unsuited for the task.

This is not a new problem, of course. Before World War I, military commanders in big European countries wondered how they would field large armies, given that modern industrial life had made many recruits physically unsuited for military service. Today, military planners still harbour the same concerns.

In 2017, the Pentagon estimated that 71pc of young Americans (aged 17 to 24) were unfit for service, and since then, the share has risen to 77pc. But it has technologies that earlier generations could scarcely have imagined. War is being taken over by unmanned appliances – such as autonomous drones – just as industrial and clerical work was in earlier eras.

To understand the political consequences of the automatization of war, just consider how society overall has changed in the modern era. In medieval society, humans were generally divided into three estates: oratores, bellatores, laboratores – those who orated or prayed (the clergy); those who fought (the aristocracy); and the rest, who actually did some "work" in the form of manual labour.

It was owing to their fighting capacity that the aristocracy initially could claim massive political power. But after they stopped fighting and retired to a foppish court existence, the legitimacy of their rule vanished in a cloud of perfume. With the mass armies that followed the French Revolution, war became democratised, and so did politics. But now that war is being fought through technology, power is moving away from the people again.

What will come of the remaining social groups?

Just as the Industrial Revolution reduced the need for laboratores, the AI revolution is rendering humans obsolete in the military sphere. Like the laboratores before them, the bellatores are becoming machines. That leaves the oratores, who are tasked with preserving what is still distinctively human.

Are they, too, vulnerable to creeping redundancy and eventual existential destruction at the hands of technology?

Fearing as much, some critics and tech leaders are calling for a "pause" on AI development. But technology has never stopped simply because some people wanted it to.

This article was provided by Project Syndicate (PS).

PUBLISHED ON Jul 29,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1213]

Harold James is a professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.

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