For all the hype in 2023, we still don’t know what AI’s long-term impact will be | John Naughton

As with the printing press and the dotcom boom, initial frenzy and speculation obscures the lasting legacy of new technologies

“Innovation,” wrote the economist William Janeway in his seminal book Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy, “begins with discovery and culminates in speculation.” That just about sums up 2023. The discovery was AI (as represented by ChatGPT), and the speculative bubble is what we have now, in which huge public corporations launch products that are known to “hallucinate” (yes, that’s now a technical term relating to large language models), and spend money like it’s going out of fashion on the kit needed to make even bigger ones. As I write, I see a report that next year Microsoft plans to buy 150,000 Nvidia chips – at $30,000 (£24,000) a pop. It’s a kind of madness. But when looked at it through the Janeway lens, ’twas ever thus.

“The innovations that have repeatedly transformed the architecture of the market economy,” he writes, “from canals to the internet, have required massive investments to construct networks whose value in use could not be imagined at the outset of deployment.” Or, to put it more crudely, what we retrospectively regard as examples of technological progress have mostly come about through outbreaks of irrational exuberance that involved colossal waste, bankrupted investors and caused social turmoil. Bubbles, in other words. In recent times, think of the dotcom boom of the late 1990s. Or in earlier times, of the US railway boom of the 1850s onwards in which no fewer than five different railway lines were built between New York and Chicago. In both bubbles, an awful lot of people lost their shirts. But, as the economist Brad DeLong memorably pointed out in his 2003 Wired article Profits of Doom, “Americans and the American economy benefited enormously from the resulting network of railroad tracks that stretched from sea to shining sea. For a curious thing happened as railroad bankruptcies and price wars put steady downward pressure on shipping prices and slashed rail freight and passenger rates across the country: new industries sprang up.”

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