When Yuval Noah Harari was promoting his second bestselling book, he said the following thing:
“…Humanity will create something more powerful than itself. When you have something that understands you better than you understand yourself, then you’re useless. Anything you can do, this system can do better.”
The idea he’s perpetuating is that artificial intelligence will somehow bring a sudden, dramatic change to everything we know and love in the near future. This is fine for a science fiction writer.
But, from a historian, I expected more.
Because history tells us that if AI does indeed change our lives in any dramatic way, it most certainly won’t be sudden.
First of all, let’s take a look at the Industrial Revolution.
It is agreed that the Industrial Revolution started around 1750s, when a confluence of factors (one of which is technology) prompted a gradual increase in productivity, which, in turn, led to other changes.
Many people have been taught to believe that the Industrial Revolution happened thanks to a series of inventions that disrupted the old ways of living. This was indeed the historian consensus 70 years ago. Today, as this Yale professor has noted, this analysis has been largely debunked.
The new view is that the Industrial Revolution happened slowly and gradually, fitting nicely into the lifestyles people were already living. Instead of one big change that separated the “now” and “then,” there were many small changes that slowly transformed how we live and cooperate.
For example, textile was the first industry that truly adopted the idea of a factory filled with machines that automated some tasks for the workers.
However, even in 1870 Paris (one of the epicenters of Industrial Revolution,) the average unit of production only had about 7 people. 120 years into the process, we’re still quite a ways from the production line mindset of the mid-20th century.