bhide10_NICOLAS MAETERLINCKBELGA MAGAFP via Getty Images_chatgpt Nicolas Maeterlinck Belga Maga/AFP via Getty Images

The Boring Truth About AI

To think that artificial intelligence is advancing at warp speed and creating existential risks to humanity is to confuse a mania with useful progress. The technology is less like nuclear weapons than like many other slowly evolving technologies that have come before, from telephony to vaccines.

CAMBRIDGE – Experts who warn that artificial intelligence poses catastrophic risks on par with nuclear annihilation ignore the gradual, diffused nature of technological development. As I argued in my 2008 book, The Venturesome Economy, transformative technologies – from steam engines, airplanes, computers, mobile telephony, and the internet to antibiotics and mRNA vaccines – evolve through a protracted, massively multiplayer game that defies top-down command and control.

Joseph Schumpeter’s “gales of creative destruction” and more recent theories trumpeting disruptive breakthroughs are misleading. As economic historian Nathan Rosenberg and many others have shown, transformative technologies do not suddenly appear out of the blue. Instead, meaningful advances require discovering and gradually overcoming many unanticipated problems.

New technologies introduce new risks. Invariably, military applications develop alongside commercial and civilian uses. Airplanes and motorized ground vehicles have been deployed in conflicts since World War I, and personal computers and mobile communication are indispensable for modern warfare. Yet life goes on. Technologically advanced societies have developed legal, political, and law-enforcement mechanisms to contain the conflicts and criminality that technological advances enable. Case-by-case court judgments are crucial in the United States and other common-law countries. These mechanisms – like the technologies themselves – are evolutionary and adaptive. They produce pragmatic solutions, not visionary constructs.