What the History of Math Can Teach Us about the Future of AI

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Whenever an impressive new technology comes along, people rush to imagine the havoc it could wreak on society, and they overreact. Today we see this happening with artificial intelligence (AI). I was at South by Southwest last month, where crowds were buzzing about Elon Musk’s latest hyperbolic claim that AI poses a far greater danger to humanity than nuclear weapons. Some economists have similarly sounded alarms that automation will put nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. at risk by 2030. The drumbeat of doomsaying has people spooked: a Gallup/Northeastern study published in March found that about three out of four Americansare convinced that AI will destroy more jobs than it creates.

My reading of the history of technology and my decades of work on its frontiers make me skeptical of such claims. Major shifts in technology—and AI does have the potential to be that—inevitably take longer than people typically imagine to transform our jobs and lives. So societies have time to apply regulations, cultural pressures and market forces that shape how that transformation happens. We’re making those kinds of adjustments today with social media technology, for example.

The long history of automation in mathematics offers an even more apt parallel to how computerization, in the form of AI and robots, is likely to affect other kinds of work. If you’re worried about AI-induced mass unemployment or worse, think about this: why didn’t digital computers make mathematicians obsolete?

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