COVID-19 will accelerate AI's replacement of humans as factor of production

COVID-19 will accelerate AI's replacement of humans as factor of production
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As the world speeds toward an unprecedented economic recession with billions of people and businesses across the planet under some form of lockdown — for weeks or months — amid one of the worst pandemics on record, counting more than 1.8 million people infected and more than 100,000 dead so far, the novel coronavirus will likely produce a yet more enduring change in a post-COVID-19 world: the replacement of humans as factor of production.

Prior to COVID-19, the often-contested race between human productivity options and machine productivity advantages appeared less definite. In the last two decades and with aim of making humans highly productive, promoting general wellbeing and increasing business competitiveness, several ideas gained traction — namely, telecommutingremote work, and coworking spaces. In fact, billions of dollars have been invested around the world in real estate (“co-working spaces”) to enable people to commute to their workplace by either just taking an elevator or walking a few blocks from home. Yet the very nature of the COVID-19 virus imposing social distancing as precautionary measure has made remote work our last available option to move on with our lives.

Prior to COVID-19, moreover, investment in artificial intelligence (AI) was already on the rise, going from $12 billion in 2017 to projected $60 billion in 2021. These figures don’t count private investments in the more controversial intelligence enhancement (IE). Instead, this trend reflects massive investments in current artificial intelligence (machine and deep learning) and, gradually, major investments in future AI — quantum artificial intelligence (QAI) and quantum computing technology in United States, China, Canada, Japan, IndiaGermany and Russia.

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Make no mistake, as companies are losing billions of dollars across the globe, COVID-19 will be the triggering event leading to the acceleration of AI’s replacement of humans as factor of production.

Most governments, international organizations, companies, and universities have now transitioned to remote work. And by now, people interacting within these organizations have learned about the restrictions and, quite likely, the psychological effects such limited interaction produces. In fact, notwithstanding direct benefits (less commuting time, stress reduction, creativity boost) and incidental advantages found in remote work (reduction of environmental, operative, healthcare, and liability costs) research on the psychological impact of remote work indicates that isolationdepressionpassive leadership, and lack of communication (decreasing teamwork efforts) are some of the most consequential effects.

Despite existential, human rights, and socioeconomic concerns about automation, the premise promoting an automated world is rather simple and, in many ways, unavoidable. That is, unlike humans, machines do not get sick and, thus, will not stop production — particularly when this one is needed the most. In the midst of a pandemic and in a fully automated world, machines could provide humans with a much-needed uninterrupted chain of food supply and healthcare-critical equipment (tests, ventilators, masks, gloves, hospital beds) — as well as automated and remotely supervised medical attention with minimal or no risk of infection to medical workers. The benefits — both in human lives saved and in uninterrupted economic activity — are, at least in the short term, indisputable.

Still, the effects of this replacement in the long term and in relation to human interaction, functionality, and purpose are far more complex. What would we do with the millions of humans who will not transition towards other creative, highly-specialized, or managerial tasks? How could a fully automated world assure continued consumption, human dignity and sources of revenue to all its inhabitants — as well as socioeconomic equality among people and countries? Unfortunately, these concerns are unlikely to be at the forefront of the upcoming-accelerated automation process. After all, the decision-making process of modern humans, their political systems, and their leaders are not characterized by their long-term perspective.

In the post-COVID-19 world, the numbers reflecting the pandemic and its economic impact will likely become the justification for a shift of paradigm in human production.

Making determinations about our future during the most uncertain present will thus require not merely competence but wisdom. Return to normalcy is a self-deception. 

J. Mauricio Gaona is a researcher at the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard University, visiting researcher at Harvard Law School, and O'Brien Fellow at McGill's Faculty of Law (Center for Human Rights).