AI doom predictions are 100 years old
Right now, there is plenty of talk about AI taking people’s jobs and how it will end the world as we know it.
While there may be a grain of truth in such statements, it’s also worth noting that people have said the same about every technological advance in the last 100 years or more.
As far back as the 1920s, newspapers have been linking automation with unemployment, with countless articles and books warning against the ‘age of the robot’.
So, are we just seeing the 21st century equivalent of the same attention-grabbing headlines? Or is something different this time?
In every decade of the last hundred years, the press has predicted that automation would eliminate most unskilled jobs. For a list of examples, decade by decade, check out this article.
But fearmongering isn’t just overzealous journalists looking for attention. Even great minds like Einstein denounced automation in 1931: “…great distress of current times as the result of man-made machines.” Likewise, economist and philosopher John Keynes coined the phrase, “technological unemployment” – a phrase alive and in use even today.
So, today’s sensationalist headlines (this time whipping up a frenzy around AI doing us all out of a job) are nothing new. There’s no shortage of articles, blogs and podcasts out there today, all adopting this line.
It is likely that artificial intelligence will replace many parts of people’s jobs but they’re not going to take over all jobs (yet). But that doesn’t make for a very exciting headline or sound bite!
Read the excellent article and see more examples on The Pessimists Archive.
What’s different this time around?
To my mind there is one key difference today. In the past, automation has largely been mechanical, taking on physical tasks. AI, on the other hand, is imitating human thought, our mental processes, and the results can be better than many people are capable of.
For example, large language models producing written materials can change writing style, rewrite, summarise, argue or defend a point, and provide references at a level beyond most adults.
Tools like WolframAlpha offer access to computation, mathematics, curated knowledge and real-time data that was previously well beyond the reach of anyone without a degree in maths or statistics.
As Neil Lawrence, professor of machine learning at Cambridge University, said in an interview for the FT, “Humans have adapted to all previous technologies. But this technology can adapt to us… the latest generative AI models are probabilistic machines trained on all human knowledge on the internet and therefore more embedded in human culture.”
Which is to say that while we may be adjusting to AI technology, it is also adjusting to us – learning from us every time we ask a question or give it a prompt – learning how it can help us better.
AI is smart technology – we need to be smart users
I’m not saying AI will live up to the doomsday predictions. But neither am I saying it’s a glorified spellchecker. AI does have the potential to change our world – in many ways, AI produces smarter results than most people. But it is restricted in what it can do and how it can implement its potential.
It still needs a prompt to act on.
It still needs a human to stitch together the output and have the conversation with the outside world.
For now, it’s like having infinite interns that return their work in seconds. It’s not perfect work but it’s often good enough. That makes AI tools very convenient to use.
But… “What about my job?”
The rise of the machines is a way off. You don’t need to start digging that fallout shelter just yet. And as for our jobs, our work, yes some things will change. Think about how we communicated pre-internet and pre-mobile phone. Compare that to now.
AI will change how we work – some jobs more than others – but it’s worth remembering something that economist Richard Baldwin said at this year’s World Economic Forum Growth Summit: “AI won’t take your job… It’s somebody using AI that will take your job.”
Harsh but true. Still, right now, with the current stage of AI development, you still need to edit and adapt AI outputs. And some tasks you give AI tools might outsmart or confuse them. But sometimes what it comes back with will blow your mind.
Bearing Baldwin’s words in mind, I believe that we should all be experimenting with these AI tools, finding out for ourselves how they can help us.
Instead of listening to scare stories, dive in and find out for yourself
AI scaremongering is great headline fodder and excellent clickbait. But while AI does have the potential to take over some aspects of some jobs, the human element is still very much necessary. The key challenge is knowing how to get an AI tool to do a job for you faster and with more accuracy than someone else.
I have collected some useful AI tools together my guide to the best ethical marketing tools – alongside lots of other marketing and AI marketing content – a list I’ll keep updated as AI continues to evolve and I find more such useful tools.