STUDENT INSIGHTS: WEALTH INEQUALITY: A CONSEQUENCE OF AI AND TECH

SOPHIA TACHE

The research, writing, and editing of this post was part of an undergraduate project undertaken for a Rutgers Honors College seminar in Fall 2020, “Literatures of Artificial Intelligence.” The author’s bio follows the post.

Artificial intelligence has been described as a technology that makes human lives easier. The idea is often to optimize, making certain tasks more efficient. AI, for instance, can analyze vast amounts of population data, aid professionals in the medical field, and promote cyber security, to name just a few examples. As AI technology evolves rapidly, tracking who has access and who benefits can be a major challenge. An unfortunate consequence of the field appears to be its enrichment of powerful corporations and the wealthy individuals who lead them, while ordinary people lack access to these skills and investment opportunities. AI and technology can worsen wealth inequality and leave people unaware as to how it happens.

Government agencies use algorithms to analyze credit scores, eligibility for public benefits, bill payments, and more. In “The Coming War on the Hidden Algorithms that Trap People in Poverty,” Karen Hao, a journalist for the MIT Technology Review, explores some of the repercussions of these forms of data collection. She writes that, “Low-income individuals bear the brunt of the shift toward algorithms. They are the people most vulnerable to temporary economic hardships that get codified into consumer reports, and the ones who need and seek public benefits.” Clearly, those who are hurt most by this shift are the same people who lack a voice in the implementation of these algorithms. In one example, a person who “lost work because of the pandemic…was denied unemployment benefits because of an automated system failure.”  When they “fell behind on rent payments,” their landlord tried to evict them. The consequent “failure to pay rent and utilities could also be a ding on their credit score, which once again has repercussions,” for instance, the inability to qualify for loans. This accumulation of problems stemming from a single computer-generated error during a time of job loss is a problem when machines are given decision-making power. In an unequal society, technology sometimes functions to distinguish those who use these resources to their advantage from those who are victimized by it.

Anna Wiener’s memoir, Uncanny Valley, describe the experience of working in the San Francisco startup environment in the 2010s, a haven for the AI field. As a new resident to the Bay Area, Wiener was hyperaware of the, “Homeless encampments sprouted in the shadows of luxury developments.” She writes, “I had never seen such a shameful juxtaposition of blatant suffering and affluent idealism” (Wiener 51). It is ironic that as cutting-edge tech startups deliver their new employees with luxurious office perks and higher pay, others are shafted and can no longer sustain living in San Francisco. Moreover, when Wiener contrasts “suffering” to “affluent idealism,” she demonstrates how people in the field are often convinced that their work can only have positive effects. But Wiener herself reveals a sense of disappointment in the ways in which wealth was distributed. “What were we doing anyway, helping people become billionaires? Billionaires were the mark of a sick society, they shouldn’t exist. There was no moral structure in which such a vast accumulation of wealth should be acceptable” (Wiener 250).

The Netflix original series Altered Carbon (2018) allows us to imagine the United States centuries into the future. Although it is science fiction, the show reimagines present-day issues in a futuristic context. The issue of wealth distribution in relation to technology is shown through the hierarchal society. A very wealthy class known as the “Meths” had emerged and are portrayed not just as well off, but as god-like. The opening episode, “Out of the Past” shows the chaotic bustle of everyone who is not in this class. The have-nots live in a dark, cloud-covered city with dilapidated buildings, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions. The Meths live in exceptionally tall structures above the clouds, resembling a Heavenly untouchable space separate from the population below (“Out of the Past,” 20:40-21:10). This resembles the “accumulation” Wiener criticizes but in a reimagined scenario. Additionally, a distinctive technology of the show is the ability to “re-sleeve” your consciousness in a new human body. This makes the natural process of death obsolete. For the Meths, who have the most access and freedom to change bodies, wealth does not need to be passed down to offspring. It remains concentrated in the hands of the same individuals and families. (“Out of the Past”) Although the technology is not necessarily what has made them wealthy, they reap the most benefit from its existence.

Wealth inequality in real life is serious but by no means a lost cause. Thankfully, we do not live in a world with immortal Meths who are entirely untouchable. We have the ability to learn about these implications of technology and many people are ready to stand up for those who are struggling.  Hao interviews Michele Gilman, a lawyer who is advocating for low-income clients that suffer because of these automated technologies. Gilman’s, Poverty Lawgorithms informs fellow poverty lawyers of the potential systems they can expect to encounter. Hopefully this can prevent a lot of suffering.

Even big names in AI wish to redefine the uses of this field. In Architects of Intelligence: The Truth about AI from the People Building it, Martin Ford interviews computer scientist and Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, Fei-Fei Li. He starts by describing AI as a potential “utility—almost like electricity—something that can be deployed almost anywhere” and asks about the possibility of this. Li encourages this “democratization” of AI that she defines as a way of lowering “the entry barrier of AI” (Ford 150-151). With this approach, technology could be a tool that instead of highlighting disparities aids human beings regardless of class status. Despite the field itself being unpredictable due to its rapidly evolving nature, it is reassuring to know there are some people who have a watchful eye on its current implications and future applications.  

Sophia Tache is a junior at Rutgers University New Brunswick in the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program. She is an English major and psychology minor on a pre-dental track.

Works Cited

Ford, Martin. Architects of Intelligence: The Truth about AI from the People Building it. Birmingham, Packt, 2018. https://www.packtpub.com/product/architects-            ofintelligence/9781789954531#:~:text=Architects%20of%20Intelligence%20contains%2 0a,in%20the%20Artificial%20Intelligence%20community

Wiener, Anna. Uncanny Valley. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.             https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374719760

“Out of the Past,” Altered Carbon, season 1, episode 1, 2 Feb. 2018. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80097693?trackId=200257859

Hao, Karen. “The Coming War on the Hidden Algorithms that Trap People in Poverty.” MIT             Technology Review, 4 Dec. 2020.             https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/12/04/1013068/algorithms-create-a-poverty-     trap-lawyers-fight-back/

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