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Why do people resist new technologies? History might provide the answer

Source | WeForum

Microsoft founder Bill Gates doesn’t understand why people are not concernedabout artificial intelligence (AI), agreeing with Elon Musk that it could be one of our biggest existential threats. Microsoft’s research head Eric Horvitz disagrees. Concern over the social and economic impacts of AI is one of the many controversies surrounding emerging technologies.

There are many reasons for this opposition to new technologies. In my new book,Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, I argue that our sense of what it means to be human lies at the root of some of the skepticism about technological innovation.

The book was launched on 6 July at the 16th Conference of the International Schumpeter Society in Montreal. Given Schumpeter’s comments on innovators and entrepreneurs – he once said that their work opened them up to “social ostracism and to physical prevention or to direct attack” – there could not have been a more suitable venue. Schumpeter wrote this comment in 1912. Which is to say that we have a long history of resisting technological advances. And it’s to history we must turn to understand why this is so.

Image: INKCINCT cartoons

Looking in the past for answers

The book draws from 600 years of technological controversies ranging from attacks on coffee in Medieval Middle East and Europe to today’s debates on the potential impact of AI, drones, 3-D printing, and gene editing.

It argues that society tends to reject new technologies when they substitute for, rather than augment, our humanity. Our desire to humanize technology is captured in the humour of this Bradley’s Bromide: “If computers get too powerful, we can organize them into a committee – that will do them in.”

We eagerly embrace them when they support our desire for inclusion, purpose, challenge, meaning and alignment with nature. We do so even when they are unwieldy, expensive, time-consuming to use, and constantly break down.

For example, the early days of the introduction of tractors in the United States were hardly the paragon of farm efficiency. Tractors offered little advantage over horses. Some opponents argued that their value could be marginally improved if they could reproduce themselves like horses.

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