Fears of AI? Deja vu all over again

This image shows a painting by Edmund Lewandowski, 'Dynamo' (detail), 1948. Oil on canvas, 36 1/8 × 30 7/8 in. (91.7 × 78.5 cm). Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harold L. Frank, by exchange, 1993.38. © Estate of Edmund Lewandowski, photograph by Tom Cheek (Image credit: de Young Museum)

Edmund Lewandowski, 'Dynamo' (detail), 1948. Oil on canvas, 36 1/8 × 30 7/8 in. (91.7 × 78.5 cm). Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harold L. Frank, by exchange, 1993.38. © Estate of Edmund Lewandowski, photograph by Tom Cheek (Image credit: de Young Museum)

Each headline is more dire than the last:

These Photos Show Machines Which Have Destroyed Many Men’s Jobs

MR. ROBOT. OFTEN OUTSHINES HIS MASTER; A Slave He Is, but He Can Use His Mechanical Brain to Do Many Things Much Better Than the Man He Serves

Does Machine Displace Men in the Long Run? New Studies Cited as Old Argument is Renewed Over Significance of “Technological Unemployment”

These headlines all voice anxiety and fear about technology putting people out of work. They’re the same worries and concerns alarming people today about artificial intelligence causing job losses and even mass unemployment.

Yet, the above headlines were published in 1931, 1933, and 1940 — not 2018, although it would be easy to mistake them from these recent ones:

AI HIGHLY LIKELY TO DESTROY HUMANS, ELON MUSK WARNS

Will robots take your job? Humans ignore the coming AI revolution at their peril.

Robots will destroy our jobs – and we’re not ready for it

The headlines from the 1930s and 1940s were included in the recent show Cult of the Machine exhibited at the de Young Museum in San Franciso. On display were 100 masterworks of American Precisionism by artists such as Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Demuth. The show’s curators established a strong connection between the hopelessness felt by workers in the 1930s and 1940s with those workers of today whose jobs are threatened by AI.

This newspaper headline from 1933 shows that today's anxieties about AI and job loss echo those from the Machine Age of the 1930s. (Image credit: New York Times)

Today’s anxieties about AI and job loss echo those from the Machine Age of the 1930s. (Image credit: New York Times)

“The tensions and ambivalences about industrialization expressed in works by the Precisionists are particularly fascinating and relevant to a contemporary audience in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which robots are replacing human labor for various functions, underscoring many of the same excitements and concerns about modernization that existed nearly one hundred years ago,” according to the exhibit description.

This image shows the painting by Clarence Holbrook Carter, 'War Bride' (detail), 1940. Oil on canvas, 36 × 54 in. (91.4 × 137.2 cm). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Richard M. Scaife American Painting Fund and Paintings Acquisition Fund, 82.6. © Estate of Clarence Carter, photograph by Richard Stoner (Image credit: de Young Museum)

Clarence Holbrook Carter, ‘War Bride’ (detail), 1940. Oil on canvas, 36 × 54 in. (91.4 × 137.2 cm). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Richard M. Scaife American Painting Fund and Paintings Acquisition Fund, 82.6. © Estate of Clarence Carter, photograph by Richard Stoner (Image credit: de Young Museum)

This article showing a giant robot towering over a city from Modern Mechanics and Inventions, March 1931 addresses many of the same concerns being voiced today by AI. (Image credit: DieselPunks)

This article from Modern Mechanics and Inventions, March 1931, addresses many of the same concerns being voiced today by AI. (Image credit: DieselPunks)

A comparison of these 80-year old headlines with those of today ought to provide some comfort to those fearing the worst from artificial intelligence. “This robot’s feat is only the latest of many demonstrations that there are jobs which machines can do better than man — more quickly, more accurately, with greater safety. These jobs are destined to increase as the machine acquires versatility, attains yet more sensitive response, and develops mechanical ‘intuitions’ beyond the well-known senses five,” wrote The New York Times on September 17, 1933.

Yes, change can be scary, and for those whose jobs are imperiled by automation and AI, it is understandably terrifying. Whether it be blacksmiths who were displaced by factory machinists, or typists whose work was replaced by word processing software, or perhaps long-haul-drivers who will one day be replaced by self-driving trucks, it’s the same fear (and fate) experienced generation after generation, as technological advances both kill and create professions. Admittedly, there can be short-term turmoil, but on balance, new jobs get created as old ones disappear.

Today’s fears about AI and joblessness, then, are not new, and the headlines show what we can learn from the past.

This 1940 cartoon shows a robot deep in thought, which reflects worries about unemployment and was prescient in predicting AI-powered machines. (Image credit: New York Times)

A 1940 cartoon reflects worries about unemployment and was prescient in predicting AI-powered machines. (Image credit: New York Times)


About the featured painting: Edmund Lewandowski, ‘Dynamo’ (detail), 1948. Oil on canvas, 36 1/8 × 30 7/8 in. (91.7 × 78.5 cm). Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harold L. Frank, by exchange, 1993.38. © Estate of Edmund Lewandowski, photograph by Tom Cheek (Image credit: de Young Museum)