Why Americans fear the AI future
Five decades of rising inequality and slow growth have made us a less optimistic country.
In fact, there are plenty of reasons why various people — not just Americans — are afraid of artificial intelligence technology. In the tech world, some people believe that autonomous artificial general intelligence will attack or even destroy the human race. Many workers are afraid that AI will replace their jobs. National security folks worry about autonomous weapons and unpredictable changes in the nature of warfare. Social justice activists are afraid that AI will be racist, and so on.
Some of this is just natural fear of the new and unknown. But it’s startling how much more pessimistic Americans seem to be about AI than, say, the internet, industrial technology, or the nuclear age. Poll after poll shows a startling level of negativity toward the new technology:
Contrast this with Chinese attitudes. I don’t have recent data, but a 2018 survey found that 65% of Chinese people were optimistic about AI creating jobs rather than destroying them. Meanwhile, that survey found that only 23% of Americans shared that outlook — almost as low as Britain and Germany, the most pessimistic countries surveyed. Americans have long prided ourselves on being sunnier and more confident about the future than our European counterparts, but it appears we’ve acquired a bit of the Old World gloom.
Why? Is it because earlier waves of technological innovation happened at a time when the U.S. was a rising power, and now we’re in decline while China rises? Perhaps. But I think there’s another factor at work here — Americans have spent much of the last four decades watching technology fail to produce the kind of rapid, broad-based income growth that it had in the past. That made them think of their economy as more of a zero-sum proposition, and it made them fear that any new technology will simply create more winners and more losers.
And that has blinded them to the possibility that AI might reverse this dynamic.
How AI could be a big win for the average worker
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