The June 25 issue of The Economist includes a special report on artificial intelligence. AI has been making extraordinary progress in the past few years. It’s ironic that after years of frustration with AI’s missed promises, many now worry that its mighty power is now upon us while we still don’t know how to properly deploy it. Some fear that at some future time, a sentient, superintelligent general AI might pose an existential threat to humanity. But while being dismissive of such dire concerns, many experts worry that the real threat is that AI advances could lead to widespread economic dislocation.
People have long worried about the impact of technology on society, be it railroads, electricity, and cars in the Industrial Age, or the Internet, mobile devices and smart connected products now permeating just about all aspect of our lives. The Economist reminds us that these worries have been with us ever since the advent of industrialization two centuries ago. Eminent English economist David Ricardo first raised the machinery question in 1821, that is, the “opinion entertained by the labouring class, that the employment of machinery is frequently detrimental to their interests”.
Automation anxieties continued to resurface in the 20th century, right along with accelerating technology advances. In a 1930 essay, English economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about the onset of “a new disease” which he named technological unemployment, that is, “unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.” But each time those fears arose in the past, technology innovations ended up creating more jobs than they destroyed, causing the majority of economists to confidently wave away the machinery question.
Automation fears have understandably accelerated in recent years, as our increasingly smart machines are now being applied to activities requiring intelligence and cognitive capabilities that not long ago were viewed as the exclusive domain of humans. The concerns surrounding AI’s long term impact may well be in a class by themselves. Like no other technology, AI forces us to explore the very boundaries between machines and humans.
What impact will AI have on jobs? Could our smart machines lead to mass unemployment? What will life be like in such an AI future? “After 200 years, the machinery question is back. It needs to be answered, notes The Economist.” What can we learn from history that will help us better respond to AI’s technological advances?