How a leading economist learned to start worrying and fear artificial intelligence
Ever since ChatGPT’s explosive emergence last winter, the bigger concern for most of us has been whether these tools will soon write, code, analyze, brainstorm, compose, design, and illustrate us out of our jobs . To that, Silicon Valley and corporate America have been curiously united in their optimism. Yes, a few people might lose out, they say. But there’s no need to panic. AI is going to make us more productive, and that will be great for society. Ultimately, technology always is.
As a reporter who’s written about technology and the economy for years, I too subscribed to the prevailing optimism. After all, it was backed by a surprising consensus among economists, who normally can’t agree on something as fundamental as what money is .
For half a century, economists have worshiped technology as an unambiguous force for good. Normally, the “dismal science” argues, giving one person a bigger slice of the economic pie requires giving a smaller slice to the sucker next door. But technology, economists believed, was different. Invent the steam engine or the automobile or TikTok, and poof ! Like magic, the pie gets bigger, allowing everyone to enjoy a bigger slice.
“Economists viewed technological change as this amazing thing,” says Katya Klinova, the head of AI, labor, and the economy at the nonprofit Partnership on AI. “How much of it do we need? As much as possible. When? Yesterday. Where? Everywhere.” To resist technology was to invite stagnation, poverty, darkness. Countless economic models, as well as all of modern history, seemed to prove a simple and irrefutable equation: technology = prosperity for everyone.
There’s just one problem with that formulation: It’s turning out to be wrong. And the economist who’s doing the most to sound the alarm — the heretic who argues that the current trajectory of AI is far more likely to hurt us rather than help us — is perhaps the world’s leading expert on technology’s effects on the economy.
Daron Acemoglu, an economist at MIT, is so prolific and respected that he’s long been viewed as a leading candidate for the Nobel prize in economics. He used to believe in the conventional wisdom, that technology is always a force for economic good.
But now, with his longtime collaborator Simon Johnson, Acemoglu has written a 546-page treatise that demolishes the Church of Technology, demonstrating how innovation often winds up being harmful to society. In their book ” Power and Progress ,” Acemoglu and Johnson showcase a series of major inventions over the course of the past 1,000 years that, contrary to what we’ve been told, did nothing to improve, and sometimes even worsened, the lives of most people.
And in the periods when big technological breakthroughs did lead to widespread good — the examples that today’s AI optimists cite — it was only because ruling elites were forced to share the gains of innovation widely, rather than keeping the profits and power for themselves. It was the fight over technology, not just technology on its own, that wound up benefiting society.
“The broad-based prosperity of the past was not the result of any automatic, guaranteed gains of technological progress,” Acemoglu and Johnson write. “We are beneficiaries of progress, mainly because our predecessors made the progress work for more people.”
Today, in this moment of peak AI, which path are we on? The terrific one, where we all benefit from these new tools? Or the terrible one, where most of us lose out?
Over the course of three conversations this summer, Acemoglu told me he’s worried we’re currently hurtling down a road that will end in catastrophe.
All around him, he sees a torrent of warning signs — the kind that, in the past, wound up favoring the few over the many. Power concentrated in the hands of a handful of tech behemoths. Technologists, bosses, and researchers focused on replacing human workers instead of empowering them. An obsession with worker surveillance . Record-low unionization. Weakened democracies. What Acemoglu’s research shows — what history tells us — is that tech-driven dystopias aren’t some sci-fi rarity. They’re actually far more common than anyone has realized.
“There’s a fair likelihood that if we don’t do a course correction, we’re going to have a truly two-tier system,” Acemoglu told me. “A small number of people are going to be on top — they’re going to design and use those technologies — and a very large number of people will only have marginal jobs, or not very meaningful jobs.” The result, he fears, is a future of lower wages for most of us.
Acemoglu shares these dire warnings not to urge workers to resist AI altogether, nor to resign us to counting down the years to our economic doom. He sees the possibility of a beneficial outcome for AI — “the technology we have in our hands has all the capabilities to bring lots of good” — but only if workers, policymakers, researchers, and maybe even a few high-minded tech moguls make it so. Given how rapidly ChatGPT has spread throughout the workplace — 81% of large companies in one survey said they’re already using AI to replace repetitive work — Acemoglu is urging society to act quickly. And his first task is a steep one: deprogramming all of us from what he calls the “blind techno-optimism” espoused by the “modern oligarchy.”
“This,” he told me, “is the last opportunity for us to wake up.”
What is Democracy?
“Of the people, by the people, for the people”
The word democracy comes from the Greek words “demos“, meaning people, and “kratos” meaning power; so democracy can be thought of as “power of the people“: a way of governing which depends on the will of the people.
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