The fear and apprehension surrounding the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in contemporary society bear notable similarities to the concerns that emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Both events represent transformative technological shifts that have reshaped economies, societies, and the nature of work. This blog will compare and contrast the fear experienced by people during the Industrial Revolution with the apprehension surrounding AI today, highlighting the parallels and differences between these two pivotal moments in history.
1. Economic Transformation and Job Displacement
One striking similarity between the Industrial Revolution and the age of AI is the fear of economic upheaval and job displacement. During the Industrial Revolution, the widespread introduction of machinery and automation in manufacturing and agriculture led to the displacement of traditional craftsmen and agricultural laborers. Workers faced the prospect of unemployment and a shift from agrarian to urban lifestyles. Indeed many feared machines would replace all human labour - but what actually happened was the nature of work changes and demands for labour increased.
Similarly, today's AI-driven automation and robotics are transforming industries like manufacturing, logistics, and customer service. There is growing concern that AI technologies will render certain job roles obsolete, potentially leading to unemployment and economic dislocation in the short-run. For example, self-driving vehicles threaten to disrupt the transport and logistics sectors, raising concerns about job losses among professional drivers. However, in the long run, as with the industrial revolution the form and format of work may change but there will mostly likely be a new demand for new types of work.
2. Technological Unpredictability
Another common thread between these two eras is the fear of technological unpredictability. During the Industrial Revolution, innovations often outpaced society's ability to adapt, resulting in dangerous working conditions and social dislocation. For example, the rapid expansion of steam-powered machinery led to factory accidents, while urbanization strained cities' infrastructure. Indeed it could be argued that the 'mechanisation' of human life led to the bloodbaths of world war 1 and 2 and this indeed must be a global consideration however it is one we are currently failing to adequately address. AI may jet be another tool in the arsenal of war hawks but until we learn to tame them or nullify their impact the greatest threat does NOT come from AI, but ourselves.
Similarly, the rapid advancements in AI and machine learning introduce unpredictability in various domains. Concerns exist regarding the unanticipated consequences of AI, such as algorithmic bias in criminal justice or the ethical implications of autonomous weapons. These technological uncertainties contribute to public apprehension and underscore the need for robust regulation and ethical considerations in AI development. Moroever, there is clear evidence that the biases of their progarmmers are passed on through the AI. A quick use of ChatGPT for example clearly reveals is US centric hegemonic paradigm.
3. Social Inequality and Wealth Disparities
The Industrial Revolution and the AI era both accentuate fears related to social inequality and wealth disparities. During the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of industrial wealth in the hands of a few magnates led to significant income disparities. Workers faced poor working conditions, low wages, and minimal job security. Indeed the current trend globally has been upwards for development but this mist be counterbalanced by the reality that there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor - a gap that is partially contributed to by the technology and especially the e-technology gap.
In contemporary times, AI-driven automation has the potential to exacerbate income inequality. As businesses adopt AI to streamline operations and reduce labor costs, there is a risk that the benefits of increased productivity may not be equitably distributed. Concerns arise about the consolidation of wealth and power among tech giants and the potential for job polarization, where high-skilled workers benefit while low-skilled workers suffer. Again this is not a new paradigm but rather a continuation and enhancement of trends already in place.
4. Ethical and Moral Concerns
One key difference between the two eras is the nature of ethical and moral concerns. During the Industrial Revolution, concerns centered on workplace safety, child labor, and the exploitation of workers. Reform movements emerged to address these ethical issues, eventually leading to labor rights and workplace regulations. A number of these concerns also fail to fundamentally understand the complexity of human communication, emotions, intuition and consciousness. At present most AI operates on a symbolic, predictive algorithm. Humans do not operate or function within a purely algorithm based world.
In contrast, the ethical concerns surrounding AI are fundamentally different and often pertain to issues of privacy, data security, and the ethical use of AI in decision-making. For example, facial recognition technology raises concerns about privacy invasion and surveillance, while AI in healthcare introduces ethical dilemmas related to patient data privacy and consent. These ethical challenges demand novel solutions and regulatory frameworks distinct from those of the Industrial Revolution. Id the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed anything it is that we can both work together effectively and are inter-dependent but also can be at the whim of governments and their agencies.
A simple question which can help guide global discussions around AI are how will such technology enhance human flourishing. We must not be naive and believe either rouge nations or companies will halt the advancement of AI but we can begin discussions around its purpose' and utility.
5. Human-Machine Interaction
The Industrial Revolution primarily involved the substitution of human labor with machines, emphasizing the displacement of human workers. Conversely, the age of AI introduces the concept of human-machine collaboration, where AI systems augment human capabilities rather than replace them.
For instance, AI-driven tools like chatbots and virtual assistants enhance customer service by automating routine inquiries, freeing human agents to handle more complex issues. This collaborative approach mitigates some of the fears of job displacement, highlighting the potential for AI to complement human skills and expertise.
In conclusion, the fear surrounding the Industrial Revolution and the advent of AI share common themes of economic transformation, job displacement, technological unpredictability, social inequality, and ethical concerns. However, the nature of these fears differs in significant ways, particularly in terms of human-machine interaction and the ethical dimensions of AI. While history shows that societies can adapt and innovate to address the challenges posed by transformative technologies, the distinctive features of AI demand unique considerations and solutions to ensure its responsible and equitable integration into our modern world.
Okinawan and Japanese Budo
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan