The steam engine was one of the most important inventions in human history. The first practical steam engine was invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. Newcomen’s engine was used to pump water out of coal mines, which increased the productivity of the mining industry. However, these early engines were inefficient and consumed a lot of fuel. In 1765, James Watt made significant improvements to the steam engine that made it much more efficient and versatile; it could be used for a variety of applications, including powering textile mills and factories. The steam engine became the key driver of the industrial revolution and transformed the global economy. It enabled the mass production of goods which led to the rise of cities and of the middle class. Steam-powered agricultural machinery, such as threshing machines, made farming more efficient. Steamships and locomotives made transportation faster and more efficient, which facilitated trade and colonization.
Overall, the invention of the steam engine was a major turning point in human history. It profoundly transformed the way we live and work and paved the way for life as we know it today.
ChatGPT can be compared to the Newcomen’s steam engine. It has many major shortcomings, but in an instant, it has stirred our imagination and democratized access to AI.
Every single day people are conceiving of new applications or uses for ChatGPT, and we are beginning to see how transformative and disruptive AI can be. Like the steam engine, it promises to be a turning point in history.
Like every technology before it, whether fire or nuclear energy or the internet, AI is ‘dual-use’ -it can be used to benefit and empower people, but it can also have bad consequences.
For instance, only about five companies in the world have the technical and financial capability to support generative AI models like ChatGPT, raising concerns about digital colonization. Moreover, there are mounting concerns about massive job losses, which cannot be ignored by simply hoping that new jobs will more than compensate for those lost. The history of the steam engine shows that while technological change may benefit many over the long run, short-run adjustment costs can represent a lifetime for the majority of workers.
While there was a huge surge in wealth and living standards in Britain, Europe and America, very few of those who lived through this massive economic upheaval were beneficiaries. A few machine-owning industrialists and financiers grew very rich on the misery of the mass of wage earners. The introduction of steam-powered machines eradicated many jobs, sucked child- labour into the workforce and suppressed wages. Handloom weavers, once known as labour aristocrats, became the tragic losers. Three generations of working Englishmen were made worse off as technological creativity was allowed to thrive. The fate of millions of weavers and artisans thrown out of work in countries like India, as Britain brutally colonized them, was far worse. The full benefits of the Industrial Revolution took more than a century to be realised.
So unless we are very conscious and careful, the AI revolution could turn into a tragic re-run of the Industrial Revolution, further accelerating inequality. History offers positive lessons too. In contrast to the steam engine, the introduction of electricity and the internal-combustion engine, the two main innovations of the 20 th century, helped improve the well-being of most people. The first three-quarters of the 20th century is seen as the “greatest levelling of all time”. Agricultural productivity was transformed by machinery, freeing millions of workers from the land. The mechanisation of the household liberated millions of women from time-consuming domestic chores, enabling them to enter the formal workforce and increase household incomes. Technology made work less hazardous and physically demanding. It also led to better-paying jobs. Higher unionization resulted in the distribution of wealth and low inequality. The expansion of secondary education enabled workers to perform higher value-added jobs. One of the great achievements of the 20th century was the creation of a prosperous middle class. What accounts for the difference between the first and second industrial revolutions? The big difference may have been the better balance of political power between capital and labour due to unionization, which led to better regulation and policy choices.
Whether we like it or not, AI is going to profoundly transform our world and, with that, our lives. But Technology is not destiny. Whether it results in a better or worse future is up to us and the policy choices that we make.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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