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The Stupid Economy

Advances in automation and artificial intelligence already pose a clear threat to countless occupations, just as the technologies of the Industrial Revolution did for many forms of manual labor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But this time, it is not just our jobs that are in danger.

PRINCETON – Most discussions about the march of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) have understandably concentrated on fears of massive job losses. But the implications of these technologies are actually far more terrifying. We have been brought to the brink of an alarming evolutionary transformation, not just of human capacities, but of the individual self.

History provides only a partial guide for the uncertain future we face. What we know from the first Industrial Revolution is that new technologies can fundamentally alter humans and other species. The key to this process, according to Cambridge University’s Tony Wrigley, the great historian of the era, was the replacement of human- and animal-driven mechanical energy by more productive forms, such as coal and other fossil fuels.

To be sure, the large-scale devaluation of human and animal muscle power did not happen immediately. At first, many auxiliary tasks – including mining the coal, or creating intermediate products in workshops – still required enormous physical exertion. But, after around two centuries, physical strength was rarely in demand.

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