Jill Lepore and the hackeneyed AI discourse

In a thought provoking New Yorker review essay, Harvard historian Jill Lepore historicises the current conversation of AI arguing that the bluster around AI’s impact to jobs is overstated. And that discussions around AI must be understood relative to the broader politics suffusing advanced countries, a politics of anti-immigration and xenophobia and their capacity to work themselves out of tough economic scenarios.

Lepore has a point. It is undeniable that the implications of AI, particularly economic, will be contingent on an array of domestic factors – welfare policies, industrial policy, immigration restrictions, vocational training and retraining, AI related scientific research, inertia or the ability of people and corporations to absorb and use new technologies, entrepreneurial acumen and human adaptability. Instead of incessantly claiming that AI (and automation) is bound to wreak havoc, it is perhaps prudent to understand the socio-economic and political context around AI and question its impact on technological change. It’s worth reflecting on this line, in particular:

The robots-are-coming omen-reading borrows as much from the conventions of science fiction as from those of historical analysis. It uses “robot” as a shorthand for everything from steam-powered looms to electricity-driven industrial assemblers and artificial intelligence, and thus has the twin effects of compressing time and conflating one thing with another. It indulges in the s upposition that work is something the wealthy hand out to the poor, from feudalism to capitalism, instead of something people do, for reasons that include a search for order, meaning, and purpose.