Remember that guy with a red flag walking in front of the first automobile? He's coming for AI

Updated: Apr 20

AI will be to the 21st Century what the internal combustion machine was to the 20th. Its worth getting it right.


AI for the 21st Century

Every year over 700,000 people are killed by cars— they are the leading killer of those aged between 15 and 29. Millions more suffer from poor health brought on by vehicle pollution. We have rebuilt our entire landscape around cars — one writer half-joked that an alien species visiting Earth and examining the geographic layout would assume that cars were the dominant species. Cars allowed to roam free on motorways and autoroutes with humans confined to their place on tiny sidewalks and occasional crossings.


But the deal was not a hard one to make. Societies that have embraced the automobile dominated the 20th Century, with the American Century almost synonymous with Henry Ford’s revolutionary new approach to generating vehicles. Cars brought freedom, economic and social, enabled supply chains of goods and people that transformed living standards and life expectancy.


Artificial Intelligence (AI), whatever the fantasies, is a long way from finding its Ford. Industrially, we are still in the early days — ex-coach builders beavering away with this fancy new propulsion system. But as AI investment accelerates this will change.

However the lessons from one age to another are clear

  1. AI is rather like the internal combustion engine, in that it is a General Purpose Technology (GPT). It can and will be used for many things. Whereas the ICU turned wheels — or propellors — AI is a faster and better way to turn algorithms, to move and change data.

  2. In the same way that a car is not an improved horse AI will not be an improved human. It will be a tool used for very specific tasks.

  3. When humans meet technology humans are more flexible. We will shape ourselves to the technology — assuming that the economic and societal value justifies it. This can be by choice, or coerced.

  4. This means that the terms on which AI expands will define not only our lives but those of our children and grandchildren too. Those terms are being set now. Regulation is happening and we need to make sure that it meets human requirements.

  5. There is a hard balance to strike. We want seat belts, crumple barriers and speed limits. Catalytic convertors and clear road signs and rules are positive. Men walking in front of the car with a red flag somewhat undermine the very point of the new technology. Note that this is precisely what some current regulators are suggesting when they imply that all algorithms need to have humans in the loop for decisions.

That’s why its important that industry doubles down on tool like AI Explainability Statements and that regulators move with wisdom on multiple regulatory fronts. Above all we must all engage in what will be a defining issue of the coming decades — it behoves us all to be better educated on the topic of AI. Otherwise those who already are will define what comes next.

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