AGI Isn't Necessary

Gigantic shifts in the economic landscape don't require the arrival of AGI.

What's worth remembering is that AGI is still very much a pipedream. It may be here sooner than I expect—I'm open to being wrong here—but that doesn't change the fact that it's speculative as of this writing.

However, the dramatic changes we're already seeing in the economy demonstrate that AI is not necessary for the situation to get dangerous for many people. When I say "dangerous," I don't mean AI will transform itself into a superweapon and physically kill you. I mean it is dangerous to your ability to pay your bills and keep a roof over your head.

Automation in its current form, whether we're talking about the most basic of automated systems or sophisticated ML algorithms, is capable of making large swathes of the economy redundant. This is very bad news for workers, and excellent news for businesses. Whether it's a net positive or net negative depends on how we respond as a global society.

A pattern that shows up more frequently now is the replacement of workers during periods of economic stress. Businesses that are normally making enough money to support large payrolls panic and start to not only lay off workers, but find ways to automate them. Once the crisis ends, instead of hiring again, they simply continue using automated solutions.

An Ominous Example from the Energy Sector

Back in 2016, there was a serious dip in oil and gas prices that created a sort of mini-recession in the oil business. The per barrel price plummeted, and energy companies started to layoff employees in droves.

There had been a boom in oil and gas prices leading up to that, so it's expected that some of the excess spending on employees would get cut when the price went down. But there's a lot more to this story than you might expect.

Take a look at this chart:

The price of oil and gas is correlated to the number of rigs in operation, so you can use it as a proxy for prices. What's worth focusing on here is the fact that employees were not rehired after prices recovered in 2017.

Why? Because the energy industry went on an automation spree to compensate for the lower revenues they were seeing across the board. Once they weren't bleeding money anymore, they realized they could just sail off into the sunset with their newly automated systems.

If you want more details, I highly recommend reading this article by Scott Santens.

This shift didn't require AGI. Remember: this happened in 2016! The machines involved are not even close to intelligent, they're literal robots who do tasks that are repetitive and dangerous to humans. In many ways this is a net benefit for humanity, as it means fewer people risk their lives for the sake of energy products.

That societal benefit is lost on people who are out of work and unable to provide for themselves and their families. All they know is they can't make a living because machines were more cost-effective than they were.

Without decent alternatives or some kind of government bailout, they're out of luck. Even worse, they're out of luck even when the economy improves and they expect to get their jobs back.

A Larger Pattern

This points to a larger pattern, one that indicates economic downturns will continue to create incentives for investment in automation. In previous eras of human history, businesses could only take this so far before they had to give in and hire people again. Economic recoveries meant that businesses and workers both prospered once conditions improved.

That may not be the case moving forward. It looks more and more like a zero-sum game, where losing your job in a recession means you can't just wait it out on unemployment. You may never get your job back, even when the company you worked for can afford to pay you again. They're more likely to capitalize on the savings of automation, spending that payroll money on optimizations and upgrades.

For businesses, recessions and other more mild economic downturns represent incentive structures that could lead to massive gains. While it's easy to sit on your laurels when times are good, an ugly economy forces business owners to find more efficient solutions. Our current level of technology means they don't need AGI to accomplish this across some of the global economy's most important industries.

Don't Wait

The larger point here is simple: don't wait. If you think you're OK now, you have to realize that new waves of AI technology are showing up all the time. If you aren't preparing yourself now you are likely to run into serious problems. Even without the arrival of god-like AI, your livelihood may very well be a target for automation.

This is true for both workers and business owners. Even if you have a successful enterprise, AI can represent an existential threat faster than you realize. It's best to assume, and prepare for, the worst, rather than hoping everything will stay the same.

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