AI may change the world in ways that today are impossible to imagine. But this is not quite the same thing as turning the economy upside down.
In the 1960s Robert Fogel published work about America’s railways that would later win him a Nobel Prize in economics. Many thought that rail transformed America’s prospects, turning an agricultural society into an industrial powerhouse. In fact, it had a very modest impact, Fogel found, because it replaced technology—such as canals—that would have done just about as good a job. The level of per-person income that America achieved by January 1st 1890 would have been reached by March 31st 1890 if railways had never been invented.
Of course, no one can predict with any certainty where a technology as fundamentally unpredictable as AI will take humans. Runaway growth is not impossible; nor is technological stagnation. But you can still think through the possibilities. And, so far at least, it seems as though Fogel’s railways are likely to be a useful blueprint.
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