Elitism, Artificial Intelligence, and Rawls’ Theory of Justice

On May 10, 2024, at the Induction Program for new members of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Illinois, Chapter Vice President Mark Hasegawa-Johnson gave the following address to new members.

In my day job, I teach artificial intelligence.  Every spring, I teach a course called “Artificial Intelligence” to about 500 students from across the university.  One of the questions my students are asked to think about is this: Does AI increase income inequality, and if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?  AI has produced a few of the most dramatic case studies in income inequality: the tech billionaires and tech bros, giant egos with giant salaries.  On the other hand, it’s possible for AI to reduce income inequality by giving new capabilities to small businesses.  Consider Google translate.  In 2006, Google made automatic machine translation available for free on the internet. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of people employed as foreign language translators or interpreters in the U.S. increased by 50%, from 41k to 64k.  What seems to have happened is that many companies saw the availability of Google translate as an opportunity to expand their international collaborations.  Those international collaborations led to increased demand for translators.  At the same time, human translators became much more efficient, because they could use Google translate to create rough drafts, which they would then edit; human translators could therefore earn a lot more than was previously possible, because they could take more jobs.  Thus, Google translate is a great example of an AI technology that created jobs by partnering with human translators, to make them more efficient, thereby creating new opportunities that people had not previously imagined. The recent introduction of generative AI has not gone so well. In 2022, several companies simultaneously released tool for web designers that permitted them to type in a description of the image they wanted, and receive a selection of images meeting the specified criterion, without any need to hire an artist.  Artists, naturally, feared that this tool would put them out of work.  In January 2023, artists sued some of the companies involved for $2 trillion, and although most of the lawsuit has been dismissed, at least $300 million is still at risk.  Imagine what would have happened if, instead of threatening to put artists out of work, the generative AI companies had promoted their new tools as productivity tools for artists, in the same way that Google Translate is a productivity tool for translators: imagine if they had said, “Look, you can create ten drafts for your new commission in ten seconds, then choose one, and edit it to make a truly human-created original work of art in less than half the time previously required” — the result would have been more people making a living as artists, rather than less. In other words, imagine how much better off the generative AI companies could have made their own economic position, and simultaneously the economic positions of the artists that they depend on, if those companies employed just a tiny amount of natural intelligence to complement all of their artificial intelligence.

Inequality is an important topic for a Phi Beta Kappa commencement because Phi Beta Kappa is a selective organization.  Phi Beta Kappa was founded at the Raleigh Tavern at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia on December 5, 1776.  The idea was to seal off a room in the tavern, so that very smart students could share their crazy ideas about philosophy with one another, secure in the knowledge that the only people attacking their ideas would be other students equally committed to free and open speculation.  As the 1779 induction ceremony put it: “here, too, you are to indulge in matters of speculation that freedom of inquiry which ever dispels the clouds of falsehood by the radiant sunshine of truth.”  In order to protect this atmosphere of fearless discussion, the early chapters took secrecy very seriously: they had a secret handshake, and a secret initiation ritual, and a secret motto.  All of those things are no longer secret.  Everyone in the room will be taught the handshake when you receive your certificates later.  The motto, formerly secret and now quite open, is Philosophia Viou Kuvernetes: the Love of Wisdom is the Guide to Life.

                  The ritual of Phi Beta Kappa was not the most famous document written by a Virginian in 1776.  In July of 1776, Thomas Jefferson published the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “All men are created equal.” He managed to convince the citizens of Virginia, and the other colonies, of two amazing things: first, that they had always believed that all men are created equal, and second, that their belief in this axiom was so strong that it was worth fighting a war.  In this context, you might be wondering: What kind of crazy mixed-up student hears the words “All men are created equal,” and responds by creating a secret society for very smart people?

                  The best answer to that question, I think, was not written until 1971. 1971 is the year in which John Rawls published the following thought experiment: Suppose that, before you were born, you were permitted to choose the social system into which you would be born, but that you were not permitted to choose your own position in that system.  You are not allowed to know how intelligent you will be, or how strong, or how physically attractive, or how rich, or how good your family connections will be. Rawls proposed that, if you don’t know whether you will be on the top or on the bottom, you would be unwilling to permit very much inequality in society.  In fact, he claimed, you would never tolerate inequality of any kind unless, for some reason, the happiness of the least fortunate members of society can be increased by permitting inequality.  Under Rawls’ theory of justice, the fact that everyone in this room tonight is brilliant does not, by itself, justify money, happiness, or high social status. Rather, Rawls proposed, your brilliance gives you the chance to find ways to deserve money, happiness, and high social status, by finding some type of employment that will make even the least fortunate people in our society better off than they would have been if you had not been born.

                  If that sounds like a rather demanding criterion, it’s because it is. We’re not just asking you to be brilliant: We’re asking you to be brilliant in ways that will make people happy.  The first idea that comes into your head might not work, nor the second, nor the third. The founders of Phi Beta Kappa proposed that, if you want to figure out how to improve society, the best way to do it is by discussing your ideas in an atmosphere of “freedom of inquiry which ever dispels the clouds of falsehood by the radiant sunshine of truth.”  The love of wisdom, they proposed, is a very practical thing.  Welcome to Phi Beta Kappa, in which the Love of Wisdom is the Guide to Life.