EXPERTS warn that “the substitution of machinery for human labour” may “render the population redundant”. They worry that “the discovery of this mighty power” has come “before we knew how to employ it rightly”.
Such fears are expressed today by those who worry that advances in artificial intelligence (AI) could destroy millions of jobs and pose a “Terminator”-style threat to humanity. But these are in fact the words of commentators discussing mechanisation and steam power two centuries ago.
Back then the controversy over the dangers posed by machines was known as the “machinery question”. Now a very similar debate is under way.
After many false dawns, AI has made extraordinary progress in the past few years, thanks to a versatile technique called “deep learning”.
Given enough data, large (or “deep”) neural networks, modelled on the brain’s architecture, can be trained to do all kinds of things. They power Google’s search engine, Facebook’s automatic photo tagging, Apple’s voice assistant, Amazon’s shopping recommendations and Tesla’s self-driving cars.
But this rapid progress has also led to concerns about safety and job losses. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and others wonder whether AI could get out of control, precipitating a sci-fi conflict between people and machines.
Others worry that AI will cause widespread unemployment, by automating cognitive tasks that could previously be done only by people.
After 200 years, the machinery question is back. It needs to be answered.
Read more: March of the machines | The Economist