The idea in a nutshell : Social unrest, starting with protests in the street and, potentially, ending in the overthrow of a government starts when the following factors are in place. Unemployment / low growth, income inequality, immigration tensions, poor government, low levels of social provision and a history of unrest. Every one of these factors are in place now and, soon, Artificial Intelligence will affect every sector of the economy. The result is likely to be very high levels of social unrest and, perhaps a revolution.
This is literally true. I have a boat and one of the reasons for that is my concern about social unrest when the robots come. No joke. I say it with a slight smile on my face and I don’t mean robots, I mean job automation. (the features, positives and negatives of which I have covered in other articles ) But I do mean it.
The things which brought us to the starting place
According to the ILO (International Labour Organisation), part of the UN says social unrest was falling going in to the GFC but has since steadily increased.
A variety of sources are remarkably consistent in stating the causes of social unrest. They are:
- Globalisation : More than any other factor, globalisation has led to both generalised broad benefits (like lower prices and increased choice) but has also spawned the following effects:
- A stall in real wages: In the USA in the 70s, in the Uk in the 90s and real wage growth is lower now in Australia than it has ever been before. It is no longer the case that if you work hard and follow the rules, you can expect to succeed.
- Multinationals interfering in their own interests : Most people I meet have a sense that ‘something is happening’ beyond the capability of governments. They believe that there is influence going on which is outside their control. And, to a degree, commentators agree: the people that think this are right. And the people exerting the influence are multinationals.
- Polarisation : A few people are getting very rich and most people are not. By the way, it’s worth looking in to this if you think you’re one of the people who are not getting their fair share of the global growth pie. Most people judge themselves as missing out but, if you are middle class and Australian, you are actually, probably in the top echelons (top 10%) of global success.
Why would social unrest follow the introduction of Artificial Intelligence ?
Historically, social unrest has been associated with certain economic and social conditions.
- Unemployment : The ILO ( International Labout Organisaiton ) say that ‘the expansion of the global economy has been too weak to close the significant employment and social gaps caused by the GFC. In Australia the problem is underemployment. In either case, people are not working as much as they want to.
- Economic growth : The IMF ( International Monetary Fund ) say that ‘a modest and uneven recovery is expected to continue’. Risks, they say, remain on the downside and threaten to derail the plan. In Australia, the growth we are seeing is not representative of what real Australians are seeing. The ways Australians are living and how they feel about their economic lot are not reflected in the headline GDP number.
- Income inequality : Income inequality is ‘one of the key challenges of our time’ (and will be the subject of many more posts!) and is rising at a global level. Income inequality is associated with literally every negative social outcome you can imagine from high child mortality, to depression and suicide.
So, from a global perspective, every one of those criteria is already met. I live in Australia and, while we are relatively well off, many of those circumstances exist here.
How people feel :
Many people have lost trust in government. There is rising global anti immigration sentiment. People are differing from a loss of identity and reduction in their self esteem- especially those unemployed.
So, why aren’t we seeing social unrest already ?
We are. The EIU suggest that social unrest is on the rise and that levels of social unrest are either high or very high in 45% of the world.
Below : The EIU (Economic Intelligence Unit) tracks levels of social unrest, globally.
And then we add in Artificial Intelligence
The effects of AI (Artificial Intelligence) will apply to the whole economy. Estimates of it’s impact on unemployment vary between incrementing the measure by between 10% and 45%.
Problems with taxing the multinationals which will make all the money from this new technology will accentuate the outrage people already feel about the tax avoidance undertaken by Apple, Google etc.
Added to this, income inequality will be accentuated with high skilled workers are disproportionally advantaged. On the other hand, a disenfranchised workforce, especially men, especially low skilled men run a significant chance of being left behind.
When it comes to social unrest, we are starting from a point which is dangerous. The circumstances in place already meets every one of the criteria required for social unrest to occur. There is a high or very high chance of risk in around about half the world already. Things are worse in the world beyond the shores of Australia but they’re pretty bad here, we we’ve seen.
On to that Damoclesian sword we are about to unleash a technology, AI, which will affect every job in every sector, globally. AI will affect the primary drivers of social unrest in an unhelpful way. It will cause an increase in unemployment and, while it may generate economic growth, it seems unlikely the benefits will be shares equally.
In almost every part of the world, especially (for now) the developing word, there are small groups of very rich people, tall walls and a large number of very poor people. It seems likely the same will happen in Australia.
In another article, I raised Clive Palmer as an example of what happens when workers put their heads in their hands. In January 2016, News.com.au ran this story: “THERE are fears the collapse of Clive Palmer’s nickel empire could trigger civil unrest in New Caledonia, just weeks after its president personally warned the mining magnate of a potentially violent fallout.”
That’s what happens when a small group of Australians, who have lost trust in government, who are feeling the effects of income inequality, whose sense of personal identity is threatened – and then who lose their jobs.
What will it look like, from a social unrest standpoint, when between 10% and 45% of everyone in every industry lose theirs ?
What’s your plan when the pitchforks come ?