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History doesn’t have to repeat itself with AI and the “Industrial Revolution 4.0”

By Jacob Carter

Technology has consistently been a catalyst for societal evolution across the world. The cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1793, led to the substantial expansion of slavery across the U.S., exacerbating the maltreatment of African Americans and propelling the country into civil war. Whitney would go on to pioneer the mass production of muskets almost two decades later, which undoubtedly stoked more violence between Americans and against the enslaved. Manufacturing surged as mass production became the country’s dominant economic model, and suddenly issues like child labor, employee safety and wealth disparity became commonplace as the first Industrial Revolution was underway.

Of course, mass production was the vehicle behind the U.S.’s ascent to economic hegemony in the proceeding centuries. Then, the discovery of fuel sources like natural gas and oil in the late 19th century paved the way for electricity and combustion engines. These innovations radically changed transportation, communication and individual identity as barriers separating communities at home and abroad seemed to diminish. Some scholars dub this period the Technological Revolution to represent an unparalleled era of industrial advancement. Next came the Digital Revolution where sophisticated computer and telecommunication systems cemented globalization as a new world order. Capabilities in research and intercultural resonance blossomed, opening new pathways to solve humanity’s most pressing issues. These revolutions, much like the invention of the cotton gin, simultaneously intensified social problems at every level of society. Even today, U.S. policymakers and advocates are still trying to identify and solve societal rifts brought about by phenomena like the internet and weapons of mass destruction.

Now we find ourselves in the midst of a fourth Industrial Revolution, heralded by the burgeoning power of artificial intelligence. AI is center stage in the American collective consciousness; generative AI technology like ChatGPT and Google’s Bard have been unleashed for the public to experiment with and integrate into their livelihood. The power of this technology has finally been revealed, and it has implications for every sector of public life. AI could be invaluable in boosting research and manufacturing efficiency, and it can also empower individuals to learn new skills or understand complex ideas with just a few keystrokes. The possibilities are incredible, but the liabilities are just as astounding.

Let’s take a few steps back, though, and reflect on how AI has inconspicuously infiltrated our daily lives over the last decade. At the core of artificial intelligence is its ability to collect, process and internalize data in real time at an individual level. AIs are embedded in products to learn about each user and tailor their experience based on personal information like demographics, search history, personal networks and so much more. Modern advertising has become extremely influential after the fusion of AI learning algorithms with social media, web browsers and smart technology. For the majority of consumers, hyper-personalized ads are the norm, so much so that we joke about phones and computers listening to our conversations. We have grown accustomed to looking past the hundreds of ads we see every day, but the subconscious effects of personalized ad recommendations, powered by AI, are undeniable. Another worry is how companies monetize personal data without really making their users aware of where their demographic profiles are going. Of course, we all know well the consent pop-ups for cookies on every website, but insight on how the company shares user data is intentionally vague or hidden behind lengthy privacy policies.

These AIs have steadily become an implicit part of our lives, but a new era of more sophisticated artificial intelligences are upon us. Much like its less advanced predecessors, generative AIs are scouring every corner of the internet, learning what it means to be a person in this modern world. Companies like OpenAI and Google have developed chatbots that imitate human cognition; these AIs mirror human beliefs, values and perceptions, making them approachable and charismatic in a way technology has never been before. It truly is a marvel of human ingenuity. On the other hand, we must learn from our past experiences with technology and be intentional with how AI changes local and global cultures. Otherwise, the companies behind the fourth Industrial Revolution could irrevocably alter the trajectory of the human experience. History will only repeat itself if we choose to standby and let it.

Right now is the moment for collective action around this technology. Instead of taking a reactive approach to the social problems AI may antagonize or create, we can urge proactive regulation at every level of government. The European Union is leading the movement to strengthen the most useful components of advanced AI while also directly ensuring individual privacy rights and equitable data use. The U.S. Congress has begun to discuss the merits of regulating AI, though critics argue a strict regulatory environment will hinder economic growth in Silicon Valley and thus the country as a whole. I personally refuse to put economic interests before my right to privacy and the responsibility of our government to enforce equitable behavior in the private sector. Regulation and AI are not antithetical to each other. In fact, when I asked ChatGPT for its stance on regulating advanced AI, it responded with, “Striking the right balance between fostering innovation and ensuring safety and ethical use is essential for successful AI regulation in the United States.”

While we, as everyday Americans, may not be involved in these regulatory conversations, we can be vigilant about how AI integrates into our lives and communities. Let’s turn this new Industrial Revolution into the most ethical and empathetic one our country has ever seen.

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