AI’s impact will go far beyond the steam engine: Parmy Olson

In the ongoing discourse on artificial intelligence, the analogy to the steam engine has become commonplace, evoking visions of transformative power akin to the Industrial Revolution. However, such comparisons oversimplify AI’s multifaceted impact. While Jamie Dimon and others cite historical parallels, the breadth and pace of AI’s influence outstrips that of steam power. From creative endeavours to personal relationships, AI permeates diverse aspects of society, raising complex ethical questions. Comparing AI to the internet offers a more nuanced understanding, acknowledging both its potential and perils in shaping our future.

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By Parmy Olson

Technologists have been doing it. Jamie Dimon just did it in his latest letter to shareholders. I’m referring to the way people are comparing the transformational impact of artificial intelligence to that of the steam engine. The metaphor has not only become a cliché; it paints an oversimplified and too-rosy picture of how this technology will reshape our lives. 

To be fair to Dimon, the chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., his examples were drawn from a wider net: “Think the printing press, the steam engine, electricity, computing and the Internet, among others,” he wrote. But the effects of perfecting steam power pale in comparison with the changes that the next technological development will bring. 

It’s easy to understand why so many have reached for the comparison. Microsoft Corp. Chief Technology Officer Kevin Scott said at a recent conference that it was the closest metaphor “to help understand what AI means for humanity.” And yes, harnessing steam pressure to run machinery and trains was pivotal to the Industrial Revolution, and yes, we are arguably in the midst of a new metamorphosis where AI will drive profound change. 

For a start, AI’s impact will be far broader than that of the steam engine, which primarily transformed physical labor, manufacturing and transportation. Today, AI models can generate ideas and art. Marketing firms are using them to brainstorm ideas, video production companies to generate scripts and storyboards, musicians to produce songs. This represents an altogether different and wider impact on decision-making, creativity and even personal identity and the way people socialize. Note the rise of AI chatbots like Character.aiReplika and Kindroid, which people are using for therapy, companionship and romance

AI has also been adopted far more quickly (over a few decades) than the steam engine was (over centuries). Thomas Newcomen’s first commercially successful engine in the early 1700’s wasn’t improved on by James Watt until more than 60 years later; it would take another 150 years for steam power to be broadly adopted in manufacturing and railway locomotives.

Contrast that with the way machine-learning algorithms have become prevalent in social media, retailing, logistics and more in just the last two decades. And the true catalyst, which gave rise to the latest era of “generative AI” that conjures text, images, voice and videos, and tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney, was invented just seven years ago

There are also big differences in the ethical and social implications of the steam engine versus AI. The former increased the rate of urbanization and the exploitation of human labor; the latter’s ethical challenges are more nuanced and arguably more insidious, relating to our personal privacy, surveillance, an erosion of human agency and creativity as well as potentially profound effects on personal freedoms. 

Finally, nobody in their right mind ever worried about the steam engine going rogue and destroying civilization — but tens of millions of dollars are being spent to research just that possibility for AI.

Analogies are wonderful, but they should be picked with care when language has the power to shape opinion. During the Gulf War, for instance, the use of terms like “smart weapons” implied a bloodless conflict with precise targeting that wasn’t actually possible. 

Similarly, the discourse around artificial intelligence teems with illusory terms like “intelligence” (machines aren’t intelligent), “neural networks” (they don’t have brains) and “machine learning” (they don’t understand and experience things in the way humans do), all helping to personify AI systems as something more human than they are in reality. “Steam engine,” whose harmful effects on human labor are a distant memory and which mostly brings to mind positive transformation, also doesn’t give us the full picture of AI’s repercussions. It gives us a rose-tinted view of the future. 

Here’s a better analogy: The Internet. Not only did it seamlessly weave itself into the fabric of daily life, just as AI is doing, it evolved rapidly from its inception, revolutionizing media and the way we socialize and communicate. The ethical problems it created around privacy, surveillance and misinformation are rearing their heads once again with AI, as are those around the concentration of power among a handful of Silicon Valley gatekeepers such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Meta Platforms Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc.

Comparing AI to the internet offers a broader and more nuanced understanding of its potential impacts, not to mention one that hasn’t been softened by the passage of time. We can all still feel both the positive and negative side effects of the web on our lives.

Overall it’s a better comparison than the steam engine — as are the printing press, electricity and any other revolutionary inventions from the days of yore. But if you’re going to draw just one parallel from history for the potential of AI, stick with the internet. 

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