Fertility, Freedom, and Artificial Intelligence

by George Hatjoullis

Fertility refers to the rate at which a society reproduces itself. It is basically the birthrate. One of the most cherished freedoms in western society remains the freedom to choose family size. Indeed in many countries the state will provide financial help in conception and care, and subsistence. Ageing populations has meant that such a policy has not hit social constraints. The preference is for family size less than the state feels is optimal so there is no issue of constraint of freedom. High real incomes and very low infant mortality have combined to keep desired family size small. Improvement in family planning technology has made controlling family size relatively straightforward. Wider acceptance of abortion has facilitated this development.

The forces for smaller families have come up against other social forces such as religion and pro-life movements (which need not be religious). The religious objection to contraception and abortion may be principled but it is also simultaneously self-serving. Children born to parents that are devoted to a specific religion (or philosophy) typically grow up with the same conviction and devotion. If you want to promote your convictions, have lots of kids. They provide a ready malleable source of converts. This raises a fundamental issue of freedom. If children are raised in a particular religion or philosophy how much freedom of choice do they really have? It is comparable to addiction. How much choice does an addict have? In terms of the simple behaviorist school of psychology, if you are conditioned you have little freedom of choice.

Artificial intelligence adds another dimension to the fertility and freedom conundrum. If rule-based human activity, which frankly is most of it, can be coded and replaced by AI, what happens to society? AI has the potential to raise human productivity to levels that resolve our ageing population issues. Indeed from a production point of view it may create a surplus population at current rates of fertility. From a consumption point of view it may create a deficit of population in that there may not be enough people with sufficient purchasing power to realise the production. The distribution of the production will thus need to be managed by the state. Note however there is another variable involved in the states calculation; fertility rates. It may also seek to intervene in fertility and curb the freedom to choose family size. This will also run foul of religion.

The debate on AI seems to be exclusively focused on the employment implications without consideration of the consequences for cherished  freedoms. To give this discussion some clothing consider the current state of nationalist sentiment. Nation states wish to control migrations. Those that have experienced inward migrations have done so as an act of, albeit quiet, policy. It has offset the economic consequences of ageing population. This surreptitious policy has reached a social constraint. Populations however will not stop ageing at present trends in fertility and life expectancy. The solution will be to replace immigrants with robots. The populist mantra that there are large dole queues to be utilised is not borne out by the facts. Productivity will jump and eventually (not necessarily soon but I wager sooner than you think) the employment and distributional consequences will need to be resolved.

A popular novel suggestion is the basic income. The state somehow taxes the increased productivity and gives the production to the citizens as a basic income as of right. This will involve a fundamental change in society with consequences we cannot predict. The state may choose to also act on fertility.In a very dark scenario it may first act on the fertility of those it does not deem indigenous. In a pluralist representative democracy this is unlikely but in a populist simple democracy it is highly likely. This may then become entwined with the predisposition of religions to oppose state control of fertility. It could get quite ugly.

This blog is speculative but hardly fanciful. The debate on the consequences of AI seems too narrowly based and concerned only with first derivative outcomes. If we look at higher order derivatives it paints a picture of a brave new world with some very dark corners. Unfortunately, the state is run by governments which consist of politicians that can only think to the next election. It is time for philosophers to step up and do something useful.