We tend to resist change. We worry about the ways in which it could alter our existing way of life and the harms that could result as a consequence. But these technological changes almost always end up being nowhere near as frightening as they first seemed.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link, or, if you prefer, listen to me read the article by clicking the link below.

Last week, I came across a newspaper article about the perils of a new form of entertainment. This scourge was, the piece argued, “a vehicle of pure moral and religious instruction” that exerted, on all who used it, a “deteriorating moral influence.” It had “become one of the most momentous influences acting on the popular mind” to the point where it would be sheer “rashness to disregard” the “presumptive evidence of danger” that it posed.

Other newspapers told of the deleterious effects it could have on health—concerns that it could cause the eyes to “have a sort of weary, heavy feeling” which may leave them “bloodshot and painful.” There were also concerns about the effect it could have on our mental health, the fear that it would lead to a sharp decline in productivity, addiction and even suicide.

If, having read so far, you are convinced that these articles refer to a brand new tech device—the latest virtual reality headset or some form of direct neural interface—you are forgiven. After all, these are exactly the sort of concerns one would expect these kinds of technology to evoke. As a matter of fact, the articles in question were from the newspaper archives of the early 1800s and the fears they were expressing were in relation to the rapid proliferation of paper-printed novels of fiction.

Resistance to Change

Change is always met with resistance. We worry about the harm it can cause to our existing way of life and the discomfort we will have to suffer. But in time, we almost always come to realize that our fears were mistaken. That the harms we thought would destroy us are not nearly as serious as we thought they would be.

With the rise in the popularity of bicycles, newspapers filled up with stories about the toll cycling would take on our physical health; how it would lead to heart trouble and nervous exhaustion, and give rise to a whole host of new ailments like “bicycle face” (an expression of exhaustion that would be caused by the sheer effort of cycling) and “bicycle nose” (the physical thickening of our olfactory organs due to irritation of the nasal membrane in response to the inhalation of dust on country roads). These were physical changes that many in the medical community feared would be etched permanently on the faces of riders.

When cities began to electrify, citizens started worrying about the new dangers this latest technology would pose. First and foremost was the risk of electrocution, a fear that was somewhat justified by the large number of gruesome fatalities that occurred on a nearly daily basis in those early days of learning to live with electricity. But there were also other somewhat more tangential concerns. For instance, there was a fear that prolonged exposure to electric light would lead to eye strain and insomnia, and that this sort of artificial illumination would harm the “human spirit.” We worried that the convenience offered by electric appliances would give rise to a new form of moral decay as a result of which those who used the technology would end up losing their connection with the more natural, labour-intensive way of life.

Not So Bad

Yet, despite our fears, technology has almost always proven net positive for society. Electricity became a powerful general purpose technology that radically transformed every aspect of the way we live and work to the point where it is today an integral part of daily life. The bicycle revolutionized personal transport, and, instead of “morally corrupting” women as feared, in fact played a crucial role in their emancipation. Needless to say, our worries about physical distress and facial disfigurement were unfounded and today cycling is an athletic activity widely enjoyed by millions.

Despite the vocal opposition it had to weather in its early days, fiction is not only universally regarded as good for the mind, body and soul, our abiding worry today is that our children are not reading as much as they should be—a fear that future generations will, no doubt, find laughable.

The AI Transformation

Today, we find ourselves in a somewhat similar dynamic in the context of artificial intelligence (AI). Many of the fears that are being expressed in the popular press are reminiscent of the apprehensions that had been voiced in the past over various other technologies. As before, there is a worry that AI will displace jobs and cause widespread moral degradation in society. And, just like in the past, we have conjured a number of new harms to keep ourselves anxious—the loss of our personal privacy, the proliferation of fake news and the impact that all of this will have on our democratic institutions and political processes.

I dare say history will once again prove us wrong. The jobs that AI displaces will, more likely than not, make way for new ones—which call for different skills and answer to new job descriptions. While the dangers are real, I have no doubt that we will learn to live with them in much the same way that we live with electricity—safe in our homes and offices despite the fact that less than an inch of plaster separates us from live wires carrying enough current to fry us in an instant. I have no doubt that we will create similar guard-rails to protect us from the harmful effects of AI, standard operating procedures that will become industry-wide norms, and allow us to live with AI in much the same way as we do with electricity.

We have always swung from technophobia to acceptance.

I have no doubt that we will again.