November 30, 2023

Businesses are concerned with AI. Is this something new?

By Babbage

The narrative goes something like this: Roughly 180 km northwest of London, in a town called Nottingham, an 18th century weaver named Ned Ludd became frustrated with the menace of mechanical weaving. Brimming with the anger of potential displacement, weaver Ludd seeks, finds, and successfully destroys two mechanical knitting machines.

Despite the narrative being a myth (there was never any Ludd) real protesters did, in fact, enter textile mills during the Industrial Revolution intent on smashing and destroying these machine threats to their livelihood. Today, we refer collectively to the despair, distrust, and confusion for new technology using the familiar moniker “Luddite.”

Not all protests of advancing technology are rooted in anger and despair. Honest concerns about new and innovative means for automating or mechanizing human tasks have reappeared throughout history. Scribes and copyists, for example, obviously hated the emergence of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century – and who could blame them? 

More recently, traditional media companies, including printed book and magazine publishers, expressed great concern about the Internet and associated digital technologies as they’ve emerged over the last 20 years. Their concerns and fears turned out to be uncannily reasonable – as most fair-minded people would agree that it has had a negative effect on the decorum of debate in the public square, and it ended up altering the media industry (for better or worse) forever. 

These scenarios raise an obvious question in the context of modern advances in AI. Given the concerns that most businesses, from corporate boards to factory floors, have expressed recently about the implications of AI, our team at Ballistic Ventures wonders: Is this something new – or perhaps is this just the next iteration of a well-known pattern?

First, it helps to acknowledge that AI does not just automate rote tasks – but rather complements or (gulp) replaces more cognitive tasks that involve decision making, creative skills, and understanding of a domain area. This is no longer just a blue-collar issue but appears to have implications for everyone in a business, including executives (and pithy blog writers). 

This is a unique aspect of potential AI job displacement. That is, AI knows no organizational boundaries for how it will drive change. Line workers in a factory being replaced with machines were always an obvious target, but with AI, Madison Avenue executives are now watching their public relations departments being replaced with generative AI. This is new.

Nevertheless, some concerns being expressed by executives about AI do ring familiar. Doubts about ethics, for example, associated with responsible use of AI are not much different than Charlie Chaplin exposing the ethical dilemma of replacing workers with machines (watch his Modern Times, for example – such a delightfully fun movie.)

Similarly, concerns about safety and security are not fundamentally different from concerns raised when automobiles threatened manufacturers and drivers of horse-drawn carriages in the early 20th century. Letters to editors, public speeches, and open debates abounded during that time, with tales of speed, accidents, noise, and other issues that would come with cars.

Thus, we might reasonably conclude that modern business concerns with AI have some similarities to past Luddite and related parties. But let’s take a moment to dig deeper into three specifics that appear to be different with AI in terms of the angst it produces in the business community:

  1. There is the complexity associated with AI. Unlike prior technological advances that might be visualized and conceptualized, the mathematics associated with AI are beyond the capacity of any normal executive to grasp – with few exceptions. This creates discomfort, especially when AI developers point to how they can barely trace how an AI algorithm actually runs.
  2. There is the unpredictability of AI, which is common for most new technologies, but which is particularly intense for AI. Unlike cars displacing horses or refrigerators displacing ice deliveries, AI has the potential to impact so many different and unpredictable aspects of business that it creates great discomfort for executives.
  3. There is the societal impact of AI, reinforced by dystopian predictions about how humans might be displaced by AI. Such discussion rhymes with prior societal confusion regarding astrology, alchemy, and numerology. Society needs to separate these fake concepts from the precision and correctness of science – and this is true for AI.

In the end, whether businesses support or fight new technologies such as AI, history suggests that capitalists make sense of any innovation that can drive profitability. The market’s “animal spirits” will ultimately prevail for better or worse. And workers, society, and customers will also adapt – because they must. 

This insight can help us address the question posed in the title of this piece: 

“Businesses are concerned with AI. Is this something new?”

Our answer: In some ways, this is a new phenomenon – but in the long run, the issue is mostly consistent with past patterns. Let’s hope we can get to a comfortable balance for AI between business needs, societal requirements, and pace of innovation as soon as possible. It’s in everyone’s interest to achieve this balance sooner rather than later. 

The fact that we have broad-based, general concern about AI before it’s truly unleashed is actually a great thing for us defenders. This way, we might be able to implement some of the many practical controls that AI will need in order to be safe before the first major blow-up happens. 

Let us know what you think.