Neoliberalism on Trial: Artificial Intelligence and Existential Risk
By Walter Donway
- Rather than breaking capitalism… A.G.I… is more likely to create a powerful… ally for capitalism’s most destructive creed: neoliberalism.
- —Evgeny Morozov. The New York Times1
Existential has come to mean threatening the existence of something. No, this trial balloon is not referring to the threat of a robot takeover. Open AI’s new ChatGPT app has merely revived a controversy at least as old as Isaac Asimov’s 1991 novel, I, Robot, with its famous “laws of robotics.” The threat today is that artificial intelligence will reach a stage where robots would launch an effort to take over the world, displacing humankind. (That is not what the article is about.)
Sam Altman, co-founder of Open AI, is quoted in the article defining Artificial General Intelligence (AGI, or AI) as “systems that are generally smarter than humans,” and he adds they are not yet here but are coming.
This brief definition is not especially helpful. My laptop is a lot smarter than I am if that means possessed with information, calculation ability, speed of problem solving, and a host of other mind jobs. What Mr. Altman’s definition means, in the context of the AI “threat,” is AI systems that can outsmart humans.
President Joseph Biden, Senator Chuck Schumer, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple), and many others have gotten into the act, calling for responsible innovation sessions to alert industry executives and others to the dangers of AI and calling for a moratorium on development of advanced AI until someone figures out what we might be getting ourselves into. A statement in May from 350 industry executives, researchers, and academics compared “the risk of extinction” from AI with that of pandemics and nuclear war.2
The Times article takes note of these alarms but says there are also many tech executives who view AI as yet another benefit to humankind by increasing efficiency, solving ultra-complex problems in science and other fields, and creating greater economic prosperity. Mr. Altman, not unnaturally, is a leader in making the case that this technology, like previous technologies, can be made safe, and that this technology, like previous technologies, will make our lives better.
It is that attitude, says the NYT article that is the real problem, the “existential threat.” Mr. Altman and others who support AI are “beholden to an ideology that views this new technology as inevitable and in a safe version, as universally beneficial.”
Well, that has been the overwhelming verdict on technology since the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, with its philosophical commitments to reason, science, technology, human progress, and happiness on earth—giving rise to discoveries and inventions, including efficient steam power, which launched the Industrial Revolution. The industrialization of cotton and wool mills was not without opposition, the most direct from a movement called the Luddites, who in the name of saving jobs and high wages made raids to smash the new machinery. The movement did not last long, but the name has remained and today refers to ideological opposition to technology, in particular to computer technology.
So, what is the real problem with AI? The article’s author, Evgeny Morozov, gets right to the point. According to Morozov, we simply have not yet realized that AI is the latest technology to fall into the hands of the neoliberals.
Neoliberal, of course, refers to those who seek to revive the credo of free markets and capitalism that began as early as Adam Smith and the French philosophes and was carried on later by (true) liberals like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham—to name but a few. Of course, neoliberalism is no longer “neo,” nor limited to the United States.
“Unbeknown to its proponents,” writes Mr. Morozov, “A.G.I.-ism [i.e., favoring advanced technology] is just the bastard child of a much grander ideology, one preaching that, as Margaret Thatcher memorably put it, there is no alternative, not to the market.”
What exactly does that entail? Writes Morozov, “Fascinated with privatization, competition and free trade, the architects of neoliberalism wanted to dynamize and transform a stagnant and labor-friendly [extensively unionized with government-backed above-market wages] economy through markets and deregulation.”
That certainly is what many neoliberals set out to do. With the examples of the Soviet economy, post-war Britain under Labor Party socialism, the New Deal, and later the Great Society, it was unmistakably clear to neoliberals that under direct and relentless attack was capitalism and the free markets that had made America the world’s most prosperous economy and freest country.
Yes, neoliberalism had its successes, concedes Mr. Morozov, but at immense cost? What costs? For one, he points to the Great Recession and financial crisis of 2008. But advocates of neoliberalism did not support the U.S. government’s relentless increase of the money supply, which drove interest rates down to historically unprecedented lows—fostering a runaway real-estate boom that encouraged banks to push out loans under increasingly shoddy lending standards. It was not neoliberalism that advocated that government-sponsored agencies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac purchase unlimited quantities of mortgage-backed securities from Wall Street firms. No, it was the classic boom-and-bust cycle of government money supply expansion, increasingly unjustified lending with artificially cheap money, and the inevitable bust when the shoddy investments went belly-up. This game had been going on ever since the creation of the Federal Reserve Banking system in 1913.
Mr. Morozov explains that the (supposed) performance of (supposed) neoliberals scared President Biden, foundations, think tanks, and academics away. (The implication that they ever were attracted to a movement to restore capitalism and free markets warrants only a string of laughing emojis.)
Mr. Morozov goes on to say that, “Neoliberalism is far from dead. Worse, it has found an ally in A.G.I.-ism, which stands to reinforce and replicate [neoliberalism’s]… main biases: that private sector actors outperform public ones (the market bias), that adapting to reality beats transforming it (the adaptation bias), and that efficiency trumps social concerns (the efficiency bias).”
Mr. Morozov devotes the remainder of the article to explaining how these biases will not “save the world” but “make things only worse.”
As Mr. Morozov sets out to demonstrate the consequences of neoliberalism’s three biases, he offers examples from today’s headlines (Uber, Theranos, Airbnb, Facebook). I hardly view these examples as revealing systemic flaws in the operation of free markets. They are examples, Mr. Morozov says, of “solutionism,” which is a “worldview [that] reframes social problems in terms of for-profit technological solutions” so that concerns that “belong in the public domain are reimagined as entrepreneurial opportunities…”
Uber is offered as an example of the failure of the market bias that private is better than public. According to Mr. Morozov’s narrative, Uber came along supported by venture capitalists and was touted as a cheap solution to the public transportation problems of cities. Especially exciting was the prospect of self-driving vehicles bringing down fares so those with subway budgets could ride like taxi passengers. Uber started charging low rates, says Mr. Morozov, but the promise of self-driving vehicles proved a ‘pipedream.’ Investors in Uber wanted to make a profit, so fares have gone up. “Uber users that relied on it… were left on the sidewalk.” And Airbnb was not “a savior for the beleaguered middle class.” And Tesla electric vehicles have not proven a remedy for global warming. And Facebook has not solved connectivity deficiencies in poorer nations….
Then there is the adaptation bias of neoliberalism. Mr. Morozov, not exactly neutrally, defines this as “a knack for mobilizing technology to make society’s miseries bearable.” He cites a scheme in Chicago to improve commuters’ use of the subways by encouraging more traveling at off-peak times. All this did, says Mr. Morozov, is postpone the day that the city’s government must put up the substantial funds needed to fix the city’s deteriorating infrastructure.
According to Morozov, the public sector can and should fix big problems; the market provides only Band-Aids and pain relievers. But hasn’t private enterprise solved such big problems as supplying transportation by land, sea, and air; providing the best food supply in human history; providing pharmaceutical solutions that have revolutionized health and longevity; housing a nation at a historic level; accelerating worldwide delivery of goods and services; manufacturing goods representing the highest standard of living in history?
Mr. Morozov concludes that the market can merely adapt, when what we need is transformation. “To be sure, Silicon Valley’s many apps—to monitor our spending, calories and workout regimes—are occasionally helpful. But they mostly ignore the underlying causes of poverty and obesity. And without tackling the causes, we remain stuck in the realm of adaptation not transformation.”
Regarding the efficiency bias of neoliberalism (producing the same economic value with less expenditure of resources), Morozov argues this prevents us from solving social problems. He writes, “…these solutions [increasing efficiency] often fail to grasp the messy interplay of values, missions and traditions at the heart of institutions—and interplay that is rarely visible if you only scratch their data’s surface.”
All Morozov’s examples of neoliberalism’s supposed failings involve either very recent or merely promised technologies. The article is purportedly about computer technology, but Morozov’s attack is really on neoliberalism—capitalism—, not AI.
The attack is broadly and generally on the nature of the market economy, the profit motive, operating principles like efficiency, and philosophical premises like the individual as the locus of morality and responsibility. To deign to judge capitalism’s record and potential by selecting a few instances of the problematic application of new (or expected) technology in the past decade or two is worse than irrelevant. I cannot convince myself that Mr. Morozov is acting in good faith in conjuring this case against neoliberalism.
Mr. Morozov duly concludes with a positive suggestion: “… wouldn’t our quest for augmenting intelligence be far more effective [than A.G.I. technology] if the government funded a Manhattan Project [i.e., all-out national crash program] for culture and education and the institutions that nurture them…?” And what if we don’t do this? Then the “vast resources of our existing public institutions risk becoming mere data training sets for A.G.I. start-ups, reinforcing the falsehood that society doesn’t exist.”
Because neoliberalism (at its best) stands consistently and in principle for free markets, neither A.G.I. start-ups nor any company or group of companies has any power to force any technology on our public institutions—or anyone else—only the freedom and incentive to create and offer products and services at competitive prices. Capitalism does not set out to save the world, because private individuals whose choices in the market are made in pursuit of their own goals, their own self-interest, make decisions.
Mr. Morozov concludes: “… A.G.I. may or may not prove an existential threat [via a robot rebellion]. But with its antisocial bent and its neoliberal biases A.G.I.-ism already is.”
For more on these topics, see
- Erik Hoel on the Threat to Humanity from AI. EconTalk.
- Marc Andreessen on Why AI Will Save the World. EconTalk.
- Eliezer Yudkowsky on the Dangers of AI. EconTalk.
- More EconTalk Podcast Epidosodes on Artificial Intelligence. Category Archive.
- “The Unacknowledged Success of Neoliberalism,” by Scott Sumner. Library of Economics and Liberty, July 5, 2010.
I have seen no particular evidence that developers, manufacturers, and marketers of AI are more neoliberal than any other businesspeople. In fact, doesn’t Silicon Valley keep fingered for cozy relationships with politicians?
The proponents of AGI will have to understand the theory and historical record of capitalism much better than do most businessmen if they are to counter the new Luddites who try to equate neoliberalism with the uncertainties, failures and disappointments, and sometimes exaggerated potential that are inevitable at the frontiers of tomorrow’s technology.
*Walter Donway is an author and writer with more than a dozen books available on Amazon and an editor of the e-zine Savvy Street. He was program officer or director at two leading New York City foundations in the healthcare field: The Commonwealth Fund and the Dana Foundation. He has published almost two dozen articles in the Blockchain Healthcare Review.
For more articles by Walter Donway, see the Archive.