We’ve discussed the business upsides of AI. So, what about the potential downsides — like humans becoming obsolete?
People feared exactly this happening a century ago, Marquette University professor Jerry Prout explains in Chasing Automation: The Politics of Technology and Jobs from the Roaring Twenties to the Great Society. We asked him about parallels between then and now.
How is the AI revolution comparable to twentieth-century factory innovations?
Prout: From 1921 through 1966, productivity increases were really high, mostly due to mechanization of the workplace — the assembly-line Ford model of efficiency and the ability of machines to run other machines. There was a fear, voiced even in the ‘20s, about “technological unemployment.” The head of the AFL, William Green, was very vocal about this, and Robert Wagner, the senator from New York, was talking about it in 1928.
And then when the Depression hit … Roosevelt threw everything against the wall to see what would stick in terms of programs, but by 1935, he was convinced technological advancements were undermining New Deal initiatives.
But jobs still exist today, so workers can survive automation.
Prout: That’s the recurring question, does new technology destroy jobs or create jobs? Whole industries and communities have been hollowed out … but at the same time, somebody has to make the machines, run the computer.
You can take some comfort in the fact that throughout the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and into the ‘60s, there was a concerted effort by reformers to address the problem and a rather impressive array of laws that helped workers negotiate for their fair share of productivity gains…
Like the movement for universal basic income today?
Prout: It first seriously surfaced in the ‘60s and had broad bipartisan support! Kennedy called for a commission to examine automation’s effects on jobs and Johnson saw it through; it had some pretty breathtaking and bold recommendations, including basic income.
With a (now fired) Google engineer sounding the alarm that AI has become sentient, could automation eventually be seen as unethical?
Prout: You might end up with some dramatic Kurt Vonnegut scenario in the future — but the nature of the political system is to address effects, not causes. That’s exponentially the challenge with AI because it’s happening in so many different forms and shapes.
Chasing Automation by Jerry Prout (Northern Illinois University Press) is now available.