• Artificial Intelligence
  • Barry Libert
  • AUG 05, 2019

The AI Economy Is Eating Us Alive

Getty Royalty Free

Getty Royalty Free

AI-driven platforms are learning a little more about you every day. And that’s not entirely a bad thing—it means that you get more use and value out of these platforms through their insights and matching algorithms. For example, Facebook connects you with your friends, Airbnb lets you make money off that back apartment, and Turo.com lets you rent that vacant car when you don’t need it. No one is worried about the poor apartments or cars being over-utilized.

But what about you? AI-based platforms are also quantifying and getting value from you—your contacts (Facebook, LinkedIn), your ideas (Yelp, IdeaScale), your skills (Etsy, TaskRabbit), your free time (Uber, Upwork), your shopping habits (Amazon, Alphabet) and even your very genes (Ancestry.com). The tradeoffs here are not so clear. Companies like Amazon, Apple, and Alphabet win big using your data. So, on top of worrying about whether or not AI will steal your job (a real concern), you must also worry about AI stealing your time, information, ideas, relationships, and more. AI is breaking us down into our piece parts, and using them up.

Today’s platform-based, AI-powered companies, allow us to be easily disaggregated, valued, and shared (with dubious compensation) with the companies that we think serve us. Disaggregation is not a new concept—consider fabless manufacturing in semiconductors—but it’s reaching new extremes in its application to human beings. Now we can disaggregate, value, and sell ourselves, one hour, one pint of blood, and one Instagram post at a time. Platforms lower transactions costs, increase options, and create 24/7 accessibility. And this is not all positive for human beings. We are not production plants with a clear utilization goal, and so we must each answer the questions: Is 40 hours of work sufficient each week? Should our hobbies be monetized? How many likes do we need on our social media accounts? And are we getting more value out of the relationship than the companies that capture our data?

Having options is a good thing, but along with these options has come the pressure to utilize our time, our assets, and ourselves at 100%. Today nearly 4 in 10 Americans have a side hustle—meaning they are doing gig work on top of a full-time job. The side hustle is not only the realm of Uber drives and Airbnb hosts. There is a wide range of skillsets that can easily do the “gig” thing. Even highly educated and trained workers, with backgrounds in top-tier consulting or machine learning have a variety of platforms to choose from to offer up their night-and-weekend hours. Companies like Upwork, which recently went public, are allowing us to share our skills and monetize our capabilities one hour at a time.

Our hobbies, too, are monetizable. Do you like to knit, paint, or do woodwork? Perhaps you’d like to sell your creations online on Etsy or Amazon Handmade. AI machines are keeping track. And with that availability, we all start to get the mindset that if we’re going to do it, we need to quantify and monetize it. No hobby, relationship, or asset should be wasted—or at least that’s what we have come to think. Even our vacation time gets quantified and valued by the likes and comments of our followers on Facebook and Instagram. We offer ourselves up for consumption and grading daily.

It’s no wonder that we are all so, so stressed. We now feel the pressure to spend our every waking moment either productively earning money or proving that we are cool, talented, and happy. In the process we our sharing every part of ourselves. Platforms, web browsers, sensors, and even our Alexas gather our data and feed into the AI machine.

So, what’s the answer when the world is eating you alive? We each need to decide what utilization and value looks like for us personally—not just what the platform companies want for us. There are some things in the world that you should keep just for yourself, and free from observation, judgment and monetization The 50 likes you get for a picture of your child doesn’t make them any more lovable and previous, nor you any more valuable. And the extra income you get on a gig platform while giving up your sleep often won’t make you any happier or more productive. The right measures for your happy life might be hours spent outside, lowered blood pressure, and nights sleeping in your own bed. We don’t discourage anyone from making the most of the opportunities offered by today’s AI powered platform economy, but we all need to keep in mind that the AI world will gobble us up if we’re not careful.

The Harvard Innovation Lab

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The Harvard Innovation Lab


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