Let us imagine a different future. Not one where a handful of corporations control and exploit our data — or own the machines and the algorithms that render our jobs obsolete. Not one where the current state of digital servitude becomes actual economic servitude of the medieval kind. Not the sci-fi dystopias of social wastelands, environmental degradation, and abject poverty. Instead, let us consider the possibility that we the people, the workers, the communities, the citizens, exercise our inalienable right to control our destiny. And that, instead of letting a small minority enjoy the bountiful rewards of an automated future, we claim that future for ourselves too.
Here’s a possible scenario then: continuously self-improving AI systems automate evermore work tasks and massively improve human productivity. Production costs drop exponentially and tend to zero. If we accept the proposition that most problems societies are challenged with are essentially engineering problems, then given enough time and ingenuity all these problems are solvable. AI is a cognitive multiplier across both the time and ingenuity dimensions — just witness how in July 2021 AlphaFold managed to solve the 50-year old protein folding problem in molecular biology in a just few minutes . By simple extrapolation, the economy of an automated future is one of enormous wealth creation where labour is largely cancelled from the equation of capitalism. Instead, economic value is produced mostly by a combination of capital and know-how where AI systems and data are the protagonists. We must embrace that future, not reject it. It is humanity’s opportunity for achieving Aristotelian eudemonia , as Joshiah Ober suggests . It is a future where humans can reach their full potential, free from the drudgery of slaving for a living. But there is a caveat. Our current, linear economic model extracts most of the economic value created by the algorithms and funnels it in the hands of very few individuals; our benevolent, and often not-so-benevolent, digital masters. The economic externalities of unemployment, social displacement, and the ever-higher costs of healthcare and social welfare, are then passed to governments that must get into debt in order to manage the impact of automation. This is similar to a polluting factory sending the bill for cleaning up to society; and just as we need a new economic model to manage waste and pollution so we must find new ways to manage automation and the loss of income and prosperity as labour becomes increasingly unnecessary, or — as we are already witnessing — menial and underpaid. This new model would be a “regenerative” one: the economic value created by automation will be redistributed to the citizens, not extracted. But for this new economic model to take root we need nothing less than a revolution. We need a monumental shift in the power structures of historical proportion. Expecting that the incumbent political and economic elites would simply relinquish privileged access to technology for the sake of a better world for everyone is pious hope.
Fortunately, the revolution is already happening: it’s called “decentralisation”, and it is akin to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press some six centuries ago. It was the printing press that kicked off the transformation of European society from one of feudal servitude to the liberal democracies of today. It did so by decentralizing access to knowledge, and thus radically undermining the centralized authority of the most powerful institution of that time, the Catholic Church. By giving people access to books — to the Bible — the people were able to circumvent the priesthood. And just as the printing press was a catalyst for decentralized knowledge, so with blockchains we now have the possibility to circumvent the incumbent feudal lords of Data and AI . It is no wonder why this new technology attracts so much ridicule and criticism from the establishment. It is because they have understood what is at stake and are defending their position. Blockchains can make a regenerative digital economy possible. Instead of the centralized, walled data gardens of Big Tech we can build decentralized Data Unions and Data Trusts  governed democratically by the people whose data it is, via Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs). Instead of centralized control of algorithms we can create platforms of multi-agent AI systems that continuously improve and solve engineering problems, while returning the value that they create to the communities that govern those platforms. Instead of restricting economic development, as it happens today with billions of humans unable to access banking and insurance services, it is now possible to establish decentralized financial peer-to-peer platforms that implement value-driven design frameworks and prioritize social goods too, not only profits. Instead of governments controlled by powerful lobbies auctioning natural resources, we can implement local community governance for the commons by combining Ostrom’s ideas with web3 technologies . Instead of cities running on constant deficits let us rebuild them as smart cities of shared prosperity where our data, as well as our transactions with citizen-governed decentralized digital currencies, can provide everyone with a Universal Basic Income . The future is decentralized. Let us seize this historical moment and make it happen.
Note: This article was first published in IEEE Xplore Journal.
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