Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—Arthur C. Clarke

Artificial intelligence is the Next Big Thing, and not everybody is looking forward to it.

To hear the hand-wringers tell it, AI will surely make scoundrels of our students, impoverish our creative classes, turn all of our brains to oatmeal and, just possibly, exterminate humanity. And they’re not necessarily wrong. Industrial predictions can be pretty accurate. More often, they’re wide of the mark, sometimes wildly. Remember China Syndrome and Y2K? And they invariably miss the big picture, because the most significant and enduring consequences of new technologies, good and bad, can rarely be seen from a distance. The fabulous benefits and catastrophic impacts of AI that folks are obsessing about today probably aren’t the same ones that will preoccupy them tomorrow.

“Progress means change, and change is uncomfortable.”

We’ve always been leery of new technologies. Progress means change, and change is uncomfortable. Socrates disliked and distrusted the technology of writing. “For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it,” he warned. “Their trust in writing… will discourage the use of their own memory within them.” That’s probably true enough. Then again, writing is itself a form of memory, and it’s been the primary driver of intellectual advancement and social development for at least 4,000 years. Without writing, we’d have no way of knowing that Socrates didn’t like it.

European intelligentsia of the 15th century didn’t like the printing press. Mechanization would erode respect for the written word, they believed, a medium formerly expressed in beautifully hand-illuminated volumes. Worse, if any mook could afford to publish, libraries would be quickly buried in cheap tripe of little or no substance pounded out by uncredentialed frauds to the detriment of public wit and character. “This horrible mass of books that keeps growing,” lamented German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm, “might lead to a fall back into barbarism.” Again, not entirely wrong. Not every book on the shelf is the “Corpus Aristotelicum,” and a printing press can churn out “Mein Kampf” just as efficiently as “Moby Dick.” Even so, easier access to books encouraged literacy, facilitated education, eroded class distinctions and generally improved the world’s intellectual climate.

Electricity didn’t roll out as smoothly as you might imagine. “Death does not stop at the door,” intoned a newspaper columnist in 1889, “but comes right into the house.” President Benjamin Harrison made a big show of installing electric lights in the White House, and then made his staff turn them on and off because he wasn’t about to. People with electric doorbells answered more knocks than ding-dongs because most people were afraid to ring them. In their defense, electricity was and is horribly dangerous. But it’s also incredibly useful, and we’ve just gotten pretty good at reducing its risks.

If AI is anything like previous scientific breakthroughs, it’ll solve a bunch of problems and create a bunch of new ones.

Ambrose Bierce described the newfangled telephone as “an instrument of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.” He was being cute, but Bierce wasn’t alone in his skepticism about telecommunications. A lot of people thought that voices and information spilling out of a telephone receiver was just plain creepy, and a lot of others feared that spirits of the dead could enter the home through the phone. In fact, they feared that a lot of scary things could travel through telephone lines. In the country, farmers toppled phone poles at will, and city folk tore down overhead wires lest those scary things “spill out” on top of their heads.

Coined in 1996, the term “computerphobia” describes a well-documented and well-distributed condition that includes a “fear of physically touching the computer or of damaging what’s inside it.” Additionally, people suffering from computerphobia display “reluctance to read or talk about computers” and may worry that “computers could replace people or enslave society.” Coming online in the ’80s, the internet gave people a whole new menu of cyberthreats to fret about, particularly its potential manipulation by government and industry to control everyone and everything. The words “personal information” suddenly took on a new and sinister meaning, and logging onto the Web felt to many like strolling down Main Street naked. The advent of smartphones in 2007 simply concentrated computerphobia and internet anxiety in the palm of the hand.
And that leaves us wondering what we can expect from artificial intelligence. A miracle of science that will deliver humanity from ignorance and want? Or a reckless folly that will destroy it?

Probably neither.

Writing didn’t make us forgetful, but it did make us vulnerable. A universe of suffering has been caused by bad ideas that look good on paper.
The problem with industrial printing isn’t schlock on the bookshelf, but our insanely over-documented society. We’re buried not in paperbacks, but in paperwork.
Nobody really believes that ghosts come and go through the phone anymore. But telemarketers and con artists do, which is arguably worse.
Is there anything more versatile than electricity? If only we didn’t have to dam rivers, burn fossil fuels and split atoms to produce it reliably.

If computers, the internet and smartphones haven’t properly enslaved us, we’re definitely addicts. Modern society displays all the symptoms of a junkie, including depression, anxiety, social isolation, inability to focus, agitation and paranoia.

If AI is anything like previous scientific breakthroughs, it’ll solve a bunch of problems and create a bunch of new ones. But it could be a while before we know exactly what to fear. We’re a supremely inventive species, masters of adaptation. Whatever their creators intend for thinking machines, it’s consumers who will ultimately decide what they’re good for and how best to use them, and that takes time.
People need to play with new technologies, see what they can do, how they apply to their own problems and ambitions, learn how to make them pay. WD-40 was originally developed to get water out of electrical wiring. Silly Putty was formulated as a substitute for natural rubber. Viagra was supposed to treat gout. Those who fear that artificial intelligence will put machines in the driver’s seat should remember that humanity is exceedingly good at bending the Universe to fit its own transient purposes. One can only imagine what purposes AI will serve when 2 billion GenAlphas get their 4 billion hands on it.

It should surprise no one that human intelligence has at last begot artificial intelligence. What’s to become of that Great Leap Forward is sure to surprise everyone.