I have two motivations in this post:

  • thanks to GPT-4, lots of folks looking at automation via AI seriously for the first time and are unfamiliar with much of the thinking and writing about transformative AI from the past 20-30 years
  • I think the standard analogy of AI to steam power is slightly off, and I want to make at least the outline of the case for it, even if I don't have time to invest in making the full case

Thus I'm going to highlight what I think are important analogies between industrialization and computerization and what I think that can tell us to expect from transformative AI in some ways. I want to be clear this is not very careful work so there's lots of caveats and exceptions and such. My aim is to 80/20 the analogy and the explanation.

  • steam engine : industrialization :: computer : computerization
    • the computer is roughly the equivalent of the steam engine for the computer age (hence the name)
    • like the steam engine, initially it had limited applications and minimal impact on the economy
    • then, after a few decades, improvements in design enabled the automation of key work (for the steam engine, textiles, for computers, data processing)
    • over the next few decades, design improvements enabled more areas of the economy to be automated, making individual workers more productive and making us all richer
    • then a big new technology transformed the world
  • assembly line/mass production :: transformative AI
    • the assembly line and the creation of the modern factory transformed the world and made us all a lot richer
    • prior to the assembly line, we can think of steam engines mostly automating jobs that used to be done by hand
      • those jobs were still mostly done under the old paradigm, but in an a more automated way
    • the genius of the assembly line and the mass production it enabled was to reframe how stuff got made in ways that enabled a higher degree of productivity
    • transformative AI, of which GPT-4 is the first instance (sort of like Ford's Highland Park), is computers having the sort of impact as the assembly line did, dramatically reconfiguring work rather than simply automating old ways of doing it
  • implications for jobs and productivity
    • we should expect transformative AI to make us all a lot richer quickly, much like mass production did
      • not everyone did/will like this, because richer mostly comes by making previously expensive things cheap
    • old ways of working will be outcompeted rapidly
    • but people won't be out of a job, just out of old jobs done in old ways, to be replaced by new, more productive jobs done in new ways
    • these jobs may be less fulfilling in important ways, just as factory work was less fulfilling than craftwork, but they will also make us all richer and enabled greater leisure and luxury
    • change will also come faster than last time due to increasing economic doubling speeds, so people will have less time to settle in to ways of doing things before more big changes come
      • this might actually be a good thing, because when it takes 15-30 years to change an industry that's long enough for people to make a career doing things old ways—just in time to get screwed as they reach retirement age

I've not said anything here about risks, though note that the assembly line enabled the mass production of weapons that were way more deadly than what had previously been available. We should expect similar from transformative AI.

(Final note: I think there's some irony that I didn't use GPT-4 to help me write this as a real essay with references and nice paragraphs. Let's chalk this up to me still learning to use LLMs effectively in my work and using one sometimes imposing enough mental overhead to figure out how to do what I want that I prefer to do the lazy thing and not use it, though I expect future iterations of the technology to enable me to be this lazy and easily produce good results.)

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Is it really true that the assembly line made us all a lot richer? The conventional wisdom is that a lot of people became poorer, especially in the short term (because trades/artisan jobs went away). Why shouldn't we expect the same thing from AI?

Edit: I bring this up because I think most people are concerned about the potential for a huge spike in inequality/unemployment.

Yes. It's hard to find people who are poorer because of automation once we smooth over short-term losses.

What's easier to find is people who felt poorer because they lost status, even though they actually had more purchasing power and could afford more and better goods. But they weren't actually economically poorer, just felt poorer because other people got richer faster than them.

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