An AI Challenge Only Humans Can Solve: MIT Economists Acemoglu and Johnson Identify Ways Forward for Shared Prosperity
The Dark Ages were not entirely dark. Advances in agriculture and building technology increased Medieval wealth and led to a wave of cathedral construction in Europe. However, it was a time of profound inequality. Elites captured virtually all economic gains. In Britain, as Canterbury Cathedral soared upward, peasants had no net increase in wealth between 1100 and 1300. Life expectancy hovered around 25 years. Chronic malnutrition was rampant.
“We’ve been struggling to share prosperity for a long time,” says MIT Professor Simon Johnson. “Every cathedral that your parents dragged you to see in Europe is a symbol of despair and expropriation, made possible by higher productivity.”
At a glance, this might not seem relevant to life in 2023. But Johnson and his MIT colleague Daron Acemoglu, both economists, think it is. Technology drives economic progress. As innovations take hold, one perpetual question is: Who benefits?
This applies, the scholars believe, to automation and artificial intelligence, which is the focus of a new book by Acemoglu and Johnson, “Power and Progress: Our 1000-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity,” published this week by PublicAffairs. In it, they examine who reaped the rewards from past innovations and who may gain from AI today, economically and politically.
“The book is about the choices we make with technology,” Johnson says. “That’s a very MIT type of theme. But a lot of people feel technology just descends on you, and you have to live with it.”
AI could develop as a beneficial force, Johnson says. However, he adds, “Many algorithms are being designed to try to replace humans as much as possible. We think that’s entirely wrong. The way we make progress with technology is by making machines useful to people, not displacing them. In the past we have had automation, but with new tasks for people to do and sufficient countervailing power in society.”
Today, AI is a tool of social control for some governments that also creates riches for a small number of people, according to Acemoglu and Johnson. “The current path of AI is neither good for the economy nor for democracy, and these two problems, unfortunately, reinforce each other,” they write.
A return to shared prosperity?
Acemoglu and Johnson have collaborated before; in the early 2000s, with political scientist James Robinson, they produced influential papers about politics and economic progress. Acemoglu, an Institute Professor at MIT, also co-authored with Robinson the books “Why Nations Fail” (2012), about political institutions and growth, and “The Narrow Corridor” (2019), which casts liberty as the never-assured outcome of social struggle.
Johnson, the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management, wrote “13 Bankers” (2010), about finance reform, and, with MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, “Jump-Starting America” (2019), a call for more investment in scientific research.
In “Power and Progress,” the authors emphasize that technology has created remarkable long-term benefits. As they write, “we are greatly better off than our ancestors,” and “scientific and technological progress is a vital part of that story.”
Still, a lot of suffering and oppression has occurred while the long term is unfolding, and not just during Medieval times.
“It was a 100-year struggle during the Industrial Revolution for workers to get any cut of these massive productivity gains in textiles and railways,” Johnson observes. Broader progress has come through increased labor power and electoral government; when the U.S. economy grew spectacularly for three decades after World War II, gains were widely distributed, though that has not been the case recently.
“We’re suggesting we can get back onto that path of shared prosperity, reharness technology for everybody, and get productivity gains,” Johnson says. “We had all that in the postwar period. We can get it back, but not with the current form of our machine intelligence obsession. That, we think, is undermining prosperity in the U.S. and around the world.”
A call for “machine usefulness,” not “so-so automation”
What do Acemoglu and Johnson think is deficient about AI? For one thing, they believe the development of AI is too focused on mimicking human intelligence. The scholars are skeptical of the notion that AI mirrors human thinking all told — even things like the chess program AlphaZero, which they regard more as a specialized set of instructions.
Or, for instance, image recognition programs — Is that a husky or a wolf? — use large data sets of past human decisions to build predictive models. But these are often correlation-dependent (a husky is more likely to be in front of your house), and can’t replicate the same cues humans rely on. Researchers know this, of course, and keep refining their…
– AI has the potential to increase productivity, improve quality of life, and even tackle global problems such as climate change.
– Companies are investing heavily in AI; according to a PwC survey, more than 80% of organizations are investing in AI and plan to use AI to make their businesses more efficient and profitable.
– However, concerns have been raised about the impact of AI on jobs and inequality, with some fearing that AI could be a tool of social control and a threat to democracy.
The development of AI raises important questions about who benefits from technological progress. While AI has the potential to improve people’s lives and tackle global problems, it is important to ensure that the gains are distributed more fairly. Acemoglu and Johnson argue that the current path of AI is neither good for the economy nor for democracy. They call for a return to shared prosperity and a focus on making machines useful to people, rather than displacing them.
The development of AI is a major challenge for society; it has the potential to improve people’s lives and tackle global problems, but also raises important questions about who benefits from technological progress. Acemoglu and Johnson’s new book provides a timely and insightful analysis of these issues, and offers a vision for a more equitable and prosperous future. As we continue to grapple with the challenges of AI, their call for a return to shared prosperity and a focus on making machines useful to people, rather than displacing them, is a welcome one.