Global effects of technology will not reduce inequality: report

Global effects of technology will not reduce inequality: report

Talk of artificial intelligence (AI) taking away our jobs and the need for universal income have abounded of late, but the global effects are already driving inequality upwards with profound consequences.

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) recently released a report which goes into detail about how increased technology will remove jobs from the economy and thus increase global inequality. To a certain extent this is nothing new.

But you’ll notice that even when someone who claims to be a “progressivist” attempts to tackle the issue, though there is a recognition that lower and middle skilled workers will be the first and hardest hit, the general tone is still of technology taking away “our” jobs.

There’s also no mention of the political impact of replacing even lower skilled work with machines. And there’s usually the final assertion that technology is still doing more good than harm, if only in the long run.

There seems to be a “we’re all in this together” mentality, perhaps combined with a pleasure in discussing the issue philosophically or academically. In terms of mainstream discussion and communication on the topic of intelligent machines removing jobs, there seems little focus on the gap between the moment when lower skilled jobs are taken and when pretty much all jobs are taken. This gap is where the discussion should be focused, especially if it never gets to the stage where all jobs are taken.

If AI takes the majority of jobs, I’m confident that we’ll figure something out and it’ll probably be a version of universal basic income. But in the meantime there will be a big gap between the troubles and sympathies of those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum and those at the top.

Put it this way, part of the reason Trump won is because he took a tour through the so-called rust-belt states and argued against global trade and global warming, because he knew these ex-industrial workers viewed those two things as causes for their dwindling job opportunities.

But what’s more problematic is not necessarily that Trump saw this, it’s that no one else did. The rust-belt states were considered safe Democrat territory, people were almost laughing at him for campaigning there. So this divide between the way either end of the socio-economic spectrum views the world already exists and the gap in priorities seems perfectly apparent, even demonstrable.

Add to this an informative little observation near the beginning of the IIED report: “Manufacturing for export has driven dramatic convergence between poor and rich country GDP since the late 1990s, so any closing of this route is likely to stem the reductions in global inequality that have been achieved over the past 20 years.”

This observation speaks to a seemingly well-established assertion of a slightly separate topic. When discussing global trade it’s often assumed that China and others will take jobs from the developed world because they can do menial jobs for less money. I wouldn’t disagree, but although the GDP of developing countries has seen a big kick off this phenomenon it needs to continue in order for those countries to become developed. According to the World Bank 270 million Indians still live below the poverty line, which isn’t loads shy of the population of the US (326 million).

The report goes into a lot of detail citing many more reasons why technology will increase inequality. But just based off the information above it’s obvious, if manufacturing – or low-skilled work more broadly – is the current driver of improving equality, and manufacturing and low-skilled work will be the first jobs to be taken by machines, then we’re in for a tough time ahead. Throw in an ageing population and we’re certainly not short of stressors.

Added to that we have the Trump phenomenon which suggests the political polarisation which divergence in work availability can cause is already beginning. To this extent I would say Brexit and Trump are essentially manifestations of the same issue. The point I would submit here is that, though these issues aren’t necessarily new or unrealised, I see little evidence in mainstream discussion – even mainstream tech discussion, let alone mainstream media more broadly – that these issues are recognised as connected, deeply problematic and already in play.

So what do we do? Well, retarding technological development would have negative side effects and isn’t really feasible.

The report suggests a number of things but they all come down to a relatively simple idea, and that is that the governments have to start investing in the long term. Education has to be well funded across the socio-economic spectrum, access to necessities like energy and land have to be secured, and the unemployed will need vast programs for training and guidance. We will probably also need a more united global approach to these difficulties to prevent countries mitigating harmful consequences to the detriment of other countries, which will quite simply start wars.

But we all know ideas like these will stumble over the usual, and now deeply divided, right wing vs left wing ideologies. We’re probably going to need some really innovative stuff.

Stella Creasy, a British Labour MP, has argued for the invest-to-save approach in the past, but went further suggesting every citizen should be given a loan at 18 which they repay over their lifetime. Because it’d be a government loan it could be repaid at very low interest rates, and it can be spent on whatever the recipient wants – further education, starting a business, buying a house. It would allow each person a non-prescriptive kick-start benefiting both individual freedom and the economy. It also sounds like the kind of idea which might achieve cross-ideology support.

Either way it seems to me this issue isn’t just coming down the tracks but is pretty much here. And we’re going to need to get wise to it pretty quickly.

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Ben Allen is a traveller, a millennial and a Brit. He worked in the London startup world for a while but really prefers commenting on it than working in it. He has huge faith in the tech industry and enjoys talking and writing about the social issues inherent in its development.

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