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Special Report on Artificial Intelligence - Download Free until August 31

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The return of the machinery question

After many false starts, artificial intelligence has taken off. Will it cause mass unemployment or even destroy mankind? History can provide some helpful clues, says Tom Standage

THERE IS SOMETHING familiar about fears that new machines will take everyone’s jobs, benefiting only a select few and upending society. Such concerns sparked furious arguments two centuries ago as industrialisation took hold in Britain. People at the time did not talk of an “industrial revolution” but of the “machinery question”. First posed by the economist David Ricardo in 1821, it concerned the “influence of machinery on the interests of the different classes of society”, and in particular the “opinion entertained by the labouring class, thatthe employment ofmachinery is frequently detrimental to their interests”. Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1839, railed against the “demon of mechanism” whose disruptive power was guilty of“oversetting whole multitudes ofworkmen”.

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CONTENTS

Technology: From not working to neural networking

The impact on jobs: Automation and anxiety  

Education and policy: Re-educating Rita  

Ethics: Frankenstein’s paperclips

Conclusion: Answering the machinery question

 

  • Tags: AI
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