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Are We Ready for AI Creative Destruction?

Rather than blindly trusting elegant but simplistic theories about the nature of historical change, we urgently need to focus on how the next wave of disruptive innovation could affect our social, democratic, and civic institutions. Leaving it to tech entrepreneurs risks more destruction – and less creation – than we bargained for.

BOSTON – The ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang attests to humans’ tendency to see patterns of interlocked opposites in the world around us, a predilection that has lent itself to various theories of natural cycles in social and economic phenomena. Just as the great medieval Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun saw the path of an empire’s eventual collapse imprinted in its ascent, the twentieth-century economist Nikolai Kondratiev postulated that the modern global economy moves in “long wave” super-cycles.

But no theory has been as popular as the one – going back to Karl Marx – that links the destruction of one set of productive relations to the creation of another. Writing in 1913, the German economist Werner Sombart observed that, “from destruction a new spirit of creation arises.”

It was the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter who popularized and broadened the scope of the argument that new innovations perennially replace previously dominant technologies and topple older industrial behemoths. Many social scientists built on Schumpeter’s idea of “creative destruction” to explain the innovation process and its broader implications. These analyses also identified tensions inherent in the concept. For example, does destruction bring creation, or is it an inevitable by-product of creation? More to the point, is all destruction inevitable?