In 1998, my family emigrated from a small village in Northern Pakistan to the Big Apple – the glimmering keyhole to the land of opportunity. Many Pakistani immigrants that make their way to New York follow a similar recipe.
They find a family member to finance their move to the States, live with a family member until they’re able to afford their own place, work the same types of jobs (cab driver, convenience store staff, tow truck driver), and labor night and day to earn enough money to provide for their family. They do all of this too, hopefully, provide their children with the resources they need to end up better off than them. That’s the sacrificial path that many of my family members, including my parents, took. That, for us, is what it means to achieve the American Dream.
The economic downturn after 9/11 forced my parents to reevaluate their recipe. We were barely getting by and that wasn’t the sort of life they envisioned for their kids. My dad decided to reach out to a friend on the Eastern Shore of Maryland who owned a poultry farm. This friend told my dad he could use some help running the farm. Desperate for change and some fresh air, my dad made an arrangement with his friend and we ventured south.
Running the farm was a family effort. The work is very labor-intensive and comprises primarily of working hours on end in hot, dimly-lit, and dusty conditions. Not to mention being engulfed by the pungent smell of chicken manure, which, Eastern Shore farmers will cheekily tell you is the smell of “money.”
Yes, the job is a tough one, but over the years, technology has played an increasingly important role in eliminating many of the more monotonous tasks that are associated with it. For example, running the feeders, adjusting the temperature, and adjusting the lighting in the housing units were all previously manual tasks that are now pretty much fully automated. More and more of the controls that affect the environment that the chickens live in are being automated, and this saves poultry farmers several hours of work each week.
Technology advancements didn’t only help our family’s working life, they also helped our personal one too. Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and internet technology, we were able to get high-speed internet on a 50 acre farm in Maryland (which is a minor miracle in and of itself), we were able to video chat with our extended family all over the world, and get packages delivered to our door rather than having to drive 10 miles to the nearest store.
Technology has had a profound impact on our family and on the trajectory of my life, but we were lucky in a lot of respects. Back in 2015, several of my family members in New York had experienced extreme financial hardships when the value of the city’s taxi medallion had dropped drastically.
Now, for those of you who may not know, a taxi medallion is a permit that allows a taxicab to operate. To immigrants, owning a medallion was a sign of hard-earned success in the industry. Most immigrants would start out by renting a taxi from a firm and taking home a small percentage of the earnings from each trip that they completed, as most of the revenue would go to said firm. For immigrants that saved enough to finance or purchase a medallion, this meant ownership over the taxicab, which meant less of the money going into the hands of their former managers and more going into their own pockets.
In the early 2010s, the Washington Post called taxi medallions “the best investment in America”. The demand was at an all-time high and lenders loosened their standards—they eliminated down payments, added exorbitant fees for borrowers, and even devised interest-only loans that lasted indefinitely. Countless taxicab drivers, including many of my relatives, had capitalized on this opportunity and purchased a medallion.
But the tide started to turn when ride-sharing apps hit the market. The medallion bubble had popped, leading to the financial downfall of immigrants who had saved up over the course of decades to buy a medallion.
At their peak price, medallions sold for a little over $1 million. This year, the highest price that that same medallion fetched at an auction was $138,000.
It’s needless to say that this wasn’t easy to deal with for the drivers or their families. Bankruptcy and extreme depression became commonplace in the industry. Bhairavi Desai, the head of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, says that suicide rates became so high that the Union decided to include the suicide hotline number on their official letterhead.
It’s important to note that technological innovations weren’t the issue here. Millions of people, including you and me, benefit from the increased convenience and affordability that ride-sharing apps offer. The issue was the lack of proper information that taxi drivers received throughout the expansion of the medallion bubble. If drivers were more aware of what was happening around them—the changing technological landscape, the economic implications of the rising demand for medallions, and the sinking standards for lending—they would likely have been more prepared for, what, in hindsight, seems like an inevitable outcome.
Massive breakthroughs in technology inevitably cause massive societal, economic, and political disruption. We shouldn’t stifle these innovations, but rather, we should focus on preparing our citizens for these changes.
Fast forward to 2016. I have had an interest in the tech sector since high school but became especially intrigued by cutting-edge automation technology. This led me to UC Berkeley, where I pursued a graduate degree in data science. I became fascinated by the possibilities that technologies like machine learning can unlock. The massive amounts of data that we were collecting paired with increased computational power, enabled us to solve problems that were previously deemed unsolvable. AI and machine learning forced us to rethink the bounds of what is possible.
Without a doubt, machine learning and broader AI technologies are revolutionizing the world as we know it. AI’s value proposition lies in its ability to learn how to perform tasks at a human or superhuman level. This naturally threatens the role of human workers in the labor market.
Never in the history of mankind has a technology posed such a strong threat of replacing human workers as AI does. According to a study by McKinsey, by the year 2030, automation will have displaced 400 million workers. That’s more than 30% more people than the entire population of the United States! According to the same study, 73 million jobs will be completely eliminated as a result of automation by the same year. Although laborers have historically been on the chopping block when automation enter the workplace in the past, AI threatens to replace an increasing amount of white-collar workers, including lawyers and surgeons.
The effects of these job displacements will be enormous. On a micro-level, they will devastate families. On a macro-level, they will disrupt the fabric of our society. We will likely see an increased wealth gap across the world, in addition to a host of other implications on politics, economics, and the environment. AI will affect the lives of every single being on this planet, including you and me.
One thing we can’t afford to do is to stifle the development and potential of these technologies. AI technologies have the potential to do tremendous good for our planet and its inhabitants. They offer us the promise of a world with virtually no disease, no car accidents. The promise of unparalleled convenience and personalization. By inhibiting its development, we are doing an injustice to ourselves and our progeny. Rather than slowing the development of AI, what we should focus on is giving everyone a basic understanding of the technology is, what impact it is poised to have on our society, and what they can do to best prepare for the changes that automation lends to. By educating citizens on AI, we are empowering them to be proactive and to have a voice in the discussions that will shape their future.
I strongly believe that education is one of our best remedies for alleviating the side effects of technological innovations. Almost 3 years ago, I founded a nonprofit organization focused on teaching the fundamentals of AI to students and workers. Since 2018, AI For Anyone has taught over 1,200 students in New York City. One of the most rewarding parts of my role at AI For Anyone is being able to see the impact that we’re having on these students. After students learn the fundamentals of AI, they are less fearful of the technology, more confident in their ability to deal with future technological changes, and more empowered to speak up when the technology has a negative impact on their lives.
Although we’re immensely proud of the impact that we’ve made in such a short period of time, we know that we cannot do this alone. For those that know little to nothing about AI, we need you to make an effort to understand its importance and how it applies to your life. For those of you that have a good grasp of AI and its implications, we need you to advocate for increased AI literacy and to help prepare others that may be vulnerable. When it comes to the future of our society, we are all in the same boat. By involving everyone in the discussions that are shaping the future of this technology, we’re making sure we’re heading towards a direction that is suitable for all of us, not just those that are steering the ship.
I often think about what would have happened differently if taxicab drivers were more aware of what was happening in their industry around the time that the medallion bubble peaked. Although education wouldn’t have prevented all taxicab drivers of them from losing their jobs or their life savings, at least they’d have the knowledge and whereabouts to give themselves a fighting chance at protecting their livelihoods.
Now, we have the opportunity to prevent millions of people from experiencing the same fate. Rather than letting students and workers be blindsided by the rapid changes in technology, we can enable them to be proactive and speak up when they don’t feel heard.
I want to end this talk with a quote from Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT Media Lab. He shares his thoughts on whether AI will make the world better or worse:
Neither outcome is inevitable, so the right question is not ‘What will happen?’ but ‘What will we choose to do?’ [source]
So I want to pose this question to you, everyone in the audience, and anyone that may be watching this on video. We all have the ability to shape the future of AI and its impact on our society—what will you choose to do about it?
Interested in volunteering for A.I. For Anyone? Visit aiforanyone.org/volunteer
Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to our cause at gofundme.com/aiforanyone. For every $10 you donate, we’re able to prepare 20 students for the increasingly automated world.
This article is based on Haroon Choudery’s talk at Deloitte’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza office in New York City in 2019, on the importance of educating students and workers about artificial intelligence
Haroon Choudery is the Executive Director at A.I. For Anyone & Data Scientist at Komodo Health, a healthcare IT startup. A.I. For Anyone js a nonprofit dedicated to teaching the fundamentals of AI to underserved students and service workers.
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