- AI’s rapid advancement raises concerns about job disruption and resistance from vested interests.
- Historical comparisons with craft guilds offer insights into how professions may react to AI.
- The intensity of AI backlash varies by profession, and promoting human empowerment is crucial for its successful integration.
As the rapid advance of artificial intelligence (AI) technology continues to reshape industries, concerns about the impact on employment have intensified.Historically, disruptive technologies have often faced resistance from those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The process of innovation necessitates adaptation, which can be costly and unsettling for existing stakeholders. This resistance from powerful incumbents has been a significant contributor to periods of stagnant economic growth.
The initial enthusiasm that followed the release of generative AI models like ChatGPT has given way to concerns about technological unemployment. It is becoming increasingly clear that AI has the potential to reshape the job landscape, affecting various professions.
AI’s impact on employment
According to Goldman Sachs, generative AI has the capacity to replace a substantial portion of current jobs, potentially affecting up to one-fourth of the workforce in Europe and the United States. Professions such as administration and law are expected to be more vulnerable to AI disruption compared to physically intensive roles like construction and maintenance.
AI’s capabilities are expanding rapidly, enabling it to create text, videos, and images that are virtually indistinguishable from content created by humans. Moreover, AI excels at tasks involving pattern recognition and is increasingly proficient at making basic judgment calls, such as responding to customer service inquiries.
To understand how the backlash against AI might unfold, we can look to history for insights. While some comparisons, like the Luddites’ opposition to industrialization in the 19th century, are commonly made, they may not be directly applicable. Unlike physical machinery, AI is an intangible, indestructible digital tool. Moreover, AI’s impact on employment primarily targets white-collar jobs, distinguishing it from the industrial era that spawned trade unions for factory workers.
For a more relevant historical comparison, we must turn to the Middle Ages, when powerful craft guilds regulated skilled professions across Europe. These guilds, representing various professions, aimed to protect their members by excluding competitors, leading to monopolistic practices and significant profits.
Guilds and innovation
Guilds in the Middle Ages were generally conservative when it came to innovation. While they promoted technical specialization and upward mobility, they resisted new devices and processes, often obstructing technological advancements. For example, the printing press, invented in 1440, faced opposition from scribes’ guilds and did not gain widespread use until the 18th century.
Guilds, however, were not inherently anti-technology. They were open to labor-augmenting innovations that improved efficiency and quality without replacing human labor.
Modern professional associations
In the modern era, many professions threatened by generative AI, such as lawyers, doctors, and architects, are organized into professional associations that trace their lineage back to the old guilds. These associations often restrict competition through entry barriers, fee structures, qualitative standards, and advertising limitations.
Looking ahead, these professional groups may unite to regulate AI through rules concerning data, ethics, or taxation. However, the intensity of the backlash is likely to vary among professions, given the differing levels of automation threat.
Specific professions may react strongly to AI disruption, appealing to sympathetic politicians and advocating for regulations. Their efforts could steer AI technology toward labor-augmenting applications rather than labor-replacing ones. Some professions may establish new standards for AI interactions with clients, limit automation on ethical grounds, or restrict access to certain client data for privacy reasons.
For example, medical professionals may insist on having the final say in AI-assisted disease diagnosis, while reputable news outlets may scrutinize AI-written articles for factual accuracy.
Vulnerability within professions
Within a given profession, the vulnerability to AI disruption may vary. Historically, the wealthiest guild members held the most influence and shaped policies to benefit themselves rather than the broader guild membership. Today, senior partners in law firms may welcome automation for routine tasks while safeguarding high-value-added tasks for themselves.
National variations in backlash
The intensity of the guild-style backlash against AI may differ from one country to another. In Europe, guilds formally dissolved after the French Revolution, but the corporatist mindset has persisted, leading to overregulation in the services sector. In contrast, the United States lacks a history of craft guilds.
Promoting empowerment over threat
To fully unleash AI’s potential, policymakers and innovators must emphasize uses that empower humans rather than displace them. If AI is perceived as a threat rather than an enabler, well-organized lobbies could delay or hinder its adoption across various sectors. The slow diffusion of the printing press serves as a cautionary tale, reminding us to approach AI development with caution and consideration for its societal impact.
In the pursuit of an AI-powered future, developers should heed the lessons of history, ensuring that the technology serves as a source of empowerment rather than a cause for concern.
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