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What Is AI’s Place in History?

Artificial intelligence is almost certainly revolutionary in the sense that it will spawn new technology platforms, transform or eliminate many industries, and create new ones. But it must be understood as belonging to a larger, more mature technological revolution that began a half-century ago.

LONDON – Everyone is talking about artificial intelligence as though it represents the next technological revolution. In fact, it is better understood as a key development within the still-evolving information-communications-technology (ICT) revolution, which started in the 1970s with the microprocessor. It then made a big leap in the 1990s when the US government handed the internet over to the private sector, and with the intensification of both innovation and globalization.

AI may plausibly evolve as a third leap. But what is most important to recognize today is that ICT has already brought us to the threshold of a golden age. Recognizing this potential depends on understanding the crucial role of market-shaping public policy in improving social outcomes during all previous technological revolutions. Failing that, both AI and ICT more broadly will fall short of their potential to deliver broad-based social and environmental progress.

Why doesn’t AI itself represent a new technological revolution? This question is not as pedantic as it may seem. Whether we are in the middle of a technological revolution or at the beginning of one has major implications for managing development strategies and shaping public policy. As I argue in Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, the early decades of each revolution are turbulent times of creative destruction across the entire economy, not just in a few sectors. They are periods when the state gets out of the way and allows financial markets to support experimentation by those who are journeying into the unknown.