Managing the AI Backlash

Now that the initial enthusiasm for generative AI has given way to fears of technological unemployment, it is worth considering past episodes of worker resistance to disruptive innovations. Though the Luddites are the most frequently cited parallel, the craft guilds of the Middle Ages are a better analogy.

MILAN – Disruptive technologies are rarely welcomed by workers or others with a significant stake in the status quo. Innovation requires adaptation, and adaptation is costly. Powerful incumbents’ resistance to revolutionary technologies has been a major factor in past periods of stagnant growth. Predictably, the initial enthusiasm for generative artificial intelligence, following ChatGPT’s release last year, has given way to fears of technological unemployment.

No one expects disruption caused by AI to be minor. According to Goldman Sachs, “generative AI could substitute up to one-fourth of current work” in Europe and the United States, with administrative and legal professions being more exposed than physically intensive professions such as construction and maintenance. Already, AI can produce text, videos, and pictures that are indistinguishable from human-created content. It is vastly better than humans at any task involving pattern recognition, and it is increasingly good at making basic judgment calls in many domains (for example, in responding to customer-service queries).

History offers hints about how the backlash against AI will play out, though some parallels are more useful than others. The most common analogy is to the Luddites, who reacted to industrialization in early-nineteenth-century England by destroying the machines. But this comparison is inapt, given that AI is an indestructible digital tool. Similarly, AI is unlikely to revive trade unions, which were born of industrialization, because it primarily threatens white-collar jobs, rather than assembly-line workers.

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