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Why a 19th Century German Philosopher is Still Right

In the ever-evolving landscape of technology, the words of 19th-century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel ring truer than ever: “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” We find ourselves in the midst of another industrial revolution, driven by artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, machine learning, robotics and more.

Leaders are figuring out how to use these transformative technologies to reshape the way we live, work and play.

Change and Fear

Often in this space, I have stressed that the future will be a departure from the past, not a continuation. That is true.

But sometimes history repeats itself. And that’s happening here. But for business leaders and entrepreneurs, this repeat will be a good thing.

Historically, rapid technological progress has often elicited fear and resistance. People worry that their skills will become obsolete, wages will decline and jobs will vanish. These concerns have surfaced time and time again. Artificial intelligence, particularly generative AI models like ChatGPT, Google Bard and the like, are triggering those same warnings of doom again.

Yet history has consistently demonstrated that these fears are largely unfounded.

Even this time, doomsayers have been light on detailing exactly how artificial intelligence will destroy us., as this New York Times articles points out.

Let’s take the previous Industrial Revolutions one at a time:

The First Industrial Revolution

The First Industrial Revolution, spanning from 1760 to 1840, introduced innovations like the steam engine and textile machines. While these changes raised concerns about job displacement, they ultimately created new employment opportunities and increased productivity.

The Second Industrial Revolution

The Second Industrial Revolution, roughly from 1850 to 1914, saw the mass production of steel and the spread of electricity. Once again, there was resistance to these advancements, but they led to economic growth and the emergence of new industries.

The Third Industrial Revolution

Computers, the internet and mobile phones marked the Third Industrial Revolution. Despite initial resistance, these innovations gave rise to entirely new job categories and significantly improved the quality of life for billions worldwide.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and AI

Today, as we stand at the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, fears about artificial intelligence persist. However, if history serves as a guide, these concerns are likely to be proven wrong once more. This revolution will create new opportunities and industries, just as previous ones have.

Recognize the Pattern of Doomsayers and Luddites

Throughout history, the fear of technological advancements replacing workers has recurred.

Yet, these technologies have consistently created more jobs, increased productivity and enhanced the overall standard of living. Acknowledging this pattern is essential when addressing present-day anxieties.

The Luddite movement during the First Industrial Revolution serves as a notable example of resistance to change. They went around destroying looms, fearing that the new technology would destroy their chances at future employment.

While their concerns were valid, technological progress continued, and society adapted.

In contemporary times, a new generation of skeptics has emerged in the face of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While some advocate for caution, we must recognize the immense promise that AI and automation hold in addressing society’s challenges. These neo-Luddites will be proven wrong – again.

Embrace Change

While concerns about AI safety and ethics are valid, we should not allow fear to hinder progress. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will usher in new job opportunities, enhance productivity and stimulate economic growth.

As we embark on this new era, heed Hegel’s words and learn from history. The weaving loom, electricity and mobile phones ultimately improved our lives and expanded employment opportunities.

I mean, do you really want to go back to sewing all your clothes from scratch? I didn’t think so.

Generative AI promises to improve lives, businesses and the world. Let us approach it with an open mind, diligence and thoughtfulness.

If you’re interested in exploring how progress and technology can benefit leadership in your organization, I would love to talk.