The Victorian era was one transformed by the industrial revolution. The telegraph, telephone, electricity, and steam engine are key examples of life-changing technologies and machinery.
It is not surprising, therefore, that this real-life innovation sparked the imagination of writers like Robert Stevenson, Jules Verne, and H.G Wells.
These authors imagined time machines, space rockets, and telecommunication. Even Mark Twain wrote about “mind-travelling”, imagining a technology similar to the modern-day internet in 1898. Motifs such as utopias and dystopias became popular in literature as academics debated the scientific, cultural, and physiological impact of technology.
Robert Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is another classic example. It explores the dangers of unchecked ambition in scientific experimentation through the evil, murderous alter ego Mr. Hyde. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein unleashes a monster, a living being forged out of non-living materials. These stories spoke to the fear among the Victorian pious society that ‘playing God’ would have deadly consequences.
Today’s media frenzy on generative AI is comparable to the Victorian era
In an FT op-ed, AI expert and angel investor Ian Hogarth refers to artificial general intelligence (AGI) as “God-like AI” for its predicted ability to generate new scientific knowledge independently and perform all human tasks. The article displayed both excitement and trepidation at the technology’s potential.
According to GlobalData, there have been over 5,500 news items relating to AI in the past six months. Opinion ranges from unbridled optimism that AI will revolutionize the world, to theories of an apocalyptic future where machines will rise to render humanity obsolete.
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In April 2023, The Future of Life Institute wrote an open letter calling for a six-month pause on developing AI systems that can compete with human-level intelligence, co-signed by tech leaders such as Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak. The letter posed the question “Should we risk the loss of control of our civilization?” as AI becomes more powerful. Over 3,000 people have signed it.
These arguments are the same as the talking points of Victorian sceptics on technological advancements. Philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill discussed in an essay entitled ‘Civilization’ in which he wrote about the “uncorrected influences” of technological development on society, specifically the printing press, which he predicted would dilute the voice of intellectuals by making publishing accessible to the masses and commercialize the spread of knowledge. He called for “national institutions” to mitigate this impact.
Industry 4.0 has the same spirit as the industrial revolution
Both were concerned with how technology could disrupt social norms and the labour market and wreak havoc on society as we know it. Both called for government oversight and regulation during a time of intense scientific progress.
In the 1800s, the desire to push boundaries won out over concerns, breeding a new class of innovators and entrepreneurs. Without this innovative spirit, Alexander Graham Bell would not have invented the telephone in 1876, and Joseph Swan would not have invented the lightbulb in 1878. They were the forerunners to the Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of this world.
While technology advances at a rapid pace, human behaviour remains consistent. In other words, advances in technology will always divide opinions between those who view it as a new frontier to explore and those who consider it to be Frankenstein’s monster. We can heed the warnings when it comes to unregulated technological developments and still appreciate the opportunities ingenuity brings. This is especially pertinent when it comes to artificial intelligence.