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HomeTechnologyWill AI be an economic blessing or curse? History offers clues

Will AI be an economic blessing or curse? History offers clues

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has emerged as a revolutionary force poised to reshape our world in profound ways. Just as past technological advancements brought both prosperity and challenges, the integration of AI into our lives raises questions about its potential economic impact. Will AI be a blessing that propels society forward, or a curse that exacerbates inequality and disrupts livelihoods? To unravel this uncertainty, history provides valuable insights that can guide us toward a more equitable future.

A Fork in the Road: Potential vs. Reality

As AI’s capabilities expand, economists and experts find themselves standing at a critical crossroads. Simon Johnson, a professor of global economics at MIT Sloan School of Management, aptly characterizes this juncture as a “fork in the road.” The promise of AI’s potential is tantalizing – predictions of skyrocketing productivity, unimaginable wealth creation, and a liberation from mundane tasks fill the air. McKinsey’s projection that AI could add trillions to global value annually only amplifies these expectations. Yet, skepticism looms, grounded in the historical reality that technological advancements do not always translate into shared prosperity.

FILE PHOTO: High school student Richard Erkhov is reflected on a screen of “Alnstein”, a robot powered with ChatGPT, in Pascal school in Nicosia, Cyprus, March 30, 2023. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou/File Photo

Lessons from the Past

A historical perspective reveals that the impact of technological progress has been far from uniform. The spinning jenny, a breakthrough in 18th-century automation, illustrates the dichotomy between innovation and labor conditions. While it transformed the textiles industry, it also led to grueling work hours and harsh conditions for laborers. Similarly, the Internet, once hailed as a conduit for democratizing wealth, has seen a disproportionate concentration of its rewards in the hands of a few billionaires. The potential of AI to reshape labor productivity warrants caution, especially given the complex and unequal history of technological evolution.

Global Challenges and Inequalities

In an interconnected global economy, the distribution of AI’s benefits raises another set of concerns. The potential for a “race to the bottom” in regulatory standards could undermine the shared benefits of AI. Simultaneously, the high barriers to entry for AI investment may leave economically disadvantaged nations behind, exacerbating existing inequalities. The need for coordinated efforts, perhaps through expanded international cooperation, becomes evident in addressing the challenges and opportunities of AI on a global scale.

The Role of Democracy and Politics

The transformative power of technology is often determined by political and societal dynamics. Historically, periods of democratic reform have facilitated the broad dissemination of technological benefits. The arrival of railways in 19th-century England coincided with democratic progress, enabling more segments of society to enjoy the advancements. However, the recent dominance of aggressive shareholder capitalism has shifted the focus toward profit gains at the expense of broader societal welfare. The case of automated self-checkouts exemplifies this shift, where labor cost reduction takes precedence over shared benefits.

Worker Empowerment and Fairness

One of the critical challenges in AI’s integration is ensuring that its benefits are equitably distributed. As labor movements lost influence in the latter part of the 20th century, concerns about AI’s impact on workers’ rights and employment have surfaced. The potential for AI-driven hiring and firing decisions underscores the need for unions to have a voice in shaping technological developments at the workplace. Empowering workers through collective bargaining and statutory consultation rights can help strike a balance between innovation and fair labor practices.


Navigating the Path Ahead

The path forward is not devoid of complexities, and a multifaceted approach is required to harness AI’s potential for societal betterment. Antitrust policies that promote healthy competition among AI suppliers can prevent monopolistic control and ensure a level playing field. Equally important is the provision of comprehensive re-training programs to equip the workforce with the skills needed in an AI-driven economy. An OECD survey underscores the potential benefits and risks of AI, emphasizing the need to strike a delicate balance between technological progress and human welfare.

Read more: Pakistan Begins with ‘National Artificial Intelligence Policy’

In the pursuit of AI’s economic promise, history reminds us that the road to prosperity is lined with both opportunities and challenges. Drawing from the lessons of the past, we must channel our efforts toward fostering a future where AI serves as a catalyst for shared prosperity, rather than a source of inequality. By prioritizing worker empowerment, democratic governance, and equitable distribution of benefits, we can guide AI’s trajectory toward a blessing rather than a curse. The choice is ours to make, and history beckons us to take heed.


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