AI: the New Electricity?
A new analogy & typology for thinking & talking about AI
One of the many things that have become ubiquitous in discussions about AI over the few months or so is the tendency to compare AI to calculators.
Comparing AI to any single tool or piece of technology is a massive oversimplification of its functionality and a massive underestimation of its potential impact.
AI represents more than a new piece of technology: it’s an infrastructural development with fundamental implications for how humans live, work and learn.
I’d like to propose that a more useful analogy for the rise of AI is the introduction of electricity - a foundational technology that gave new power (literally!) and potential to a huge range of tools, applications and, of course, people.*
*thanks to the reader who flagged that Andrew Ng who suggested the same analogy back in 2017!
The Rise & Impact of Electricity
In the late 19th century, inventors like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla made significant advancements in electric power generation and distribution. Edison invented the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb in 1879, and Tesla developed alternating current (AC) electrical systems, which are still used today.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, electricity began to have a significant impact on society. Electrical power stations were being built, and electric lighting and appliances started to become common in urban areas.
The introduction of electricity powered a host of innovations that transformed work, education, communication, transportation and daily life:
Day to Day Life
Light: Enabled activities to continue after dark, transforming social and personal routines.
Home Appliances: Simplified household chores and improved standard of living.
Communication: Powered telecommunication devices, enabling instant communication over long distances.
Entertainment: Enabled the development of radio, television, and later, the internet, transforming how people think and feel about the world.
Industrial Automation: Powered machinery that automated manual labor, increasing efficiency and productivity and liberating humans from some of the most dangerous and mundane tasks.
Office Technology: Powered devices like computers, printers, and photocopiers, transforming office work.
Research and Development: Powered more advanced scientific equipment, accelerating innovation and invention across a number of fields.
Transportation: Powered trains, trams, and later electric cars, improving the mobility of both humans and goods.
Educational Technology: Powered computers and other devices that have become essential in modern teaching and learning.
Online Learning: Enabled the development of the internet and e-learning platforms, making education accessible to a global audience.
Research: Powered and scaled libraries and research institutions, advancing knowledge generation and access to it across many disciplines.
AI: the New Electricity?
Like electricity, AI has the potential to transform how we live, work and learn on a fundamental, infrastructural level.
We are seeing the impact of this already:
Personalised Services: AI already provides millions of with personalised recommendations, services and content based on their preferences and behaviour.
Smart Homes: AI can manage home environments by controlling lighting, heating and security systems, improving comfort, safety and efficiency.
Healthcare: AI is used daily to monitor our health, support early diagnosis and recommend and allocate treatments.
Automation: AI can automate routine tasks across various industries, increasing efficiency and freeing up humans to focus on more strategic, high-value activities. See, for example, the IKEA case study.
Data Analysis: AI can process vast amounts of data to provide insights, support decision-making, and driving innovation. Large corporations like Mastercard, for example, use AI to analyse millions of transactions in real time to identify and prevent fraudulent transactions.
Collaboration: AI can facilitate human-machine and human-human collaboration, enhancing creativity and problem-solving. Companies like BMW and Toyota, for example, have deployed “co-bots” on their assembly lines to assist human workers.
Intelligent Tutoring: AI can enable us to automate and scale parts of the learning experience which have been previously unscalable, including the tutor. Tools like Khanmigo are already using AI to provide real-time feedback, guidance, and support to learners around the world 24/7.
Personalised Learning: AI has the potential to deliver on the long-held promise of personalised learning, tailoring instruction on the fly to meet individual needs and preferences.
AI for Automation and Augmentation
Why does this matter?
By reframing how we think about AI and shifting from the concept of “AI as technology” to “AI as infrastructure”, we open up a new way of thinking and talking about human-AI relationships across not one but two important dimensions:
AI for Offloading - automating human capability > AI takes over a tasks that were previously done by a human (aka AI as calculator).
AI for Extending - augmenting human capability > AI assists the human in freeing up cognition, prioritising high-value work and enhancing their abilities (aka AI as electricity).
This year, the conversation about human-AI relationship has framed AI predominantly as a tool for offloading and automation. This has led to a lot of scare stories about robots taking jobs.
For some, of course, this is a very real problem. According to a report released earlier this year by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, AI was responsible for the loss of 3,900 jobs in the USA in May 2023. This accounted for roughly 5% of all jobs lost, making it the seventh-highest contributor to employment losses in May cited by employers.
But it’s not the whole story.
The “extended mind”, electricity analogy adds a new dimension to the “will robots take our jobs?” debate. It allows us to ask: what if, like electricity, AI empowers us to free up physical and mental resources to focus on higher-order functions and skills and drive human knowledge and accomplishment?
Imagine a world in which we use AI both to offload and extend:
Offloading: Administrative tasks such as grading, attendance tracking, and scheduling can be automated using AI, freeing up the teacher's time for more meaningful interactions with students.
Extending: AI can help in personalising learning plans for each student based on their learning needs and preferences, extending the teacher's ability to provide a more tailored education for every student.
Offloading: Tasks that are hazardous or repetitive can be automated using AI and robotics, reducing the physical risk and toll on factory workers.
Extending: AI can augment the factory worker's capabilities by providing real-time data analysis and insights to optimise production processes, improve quality control, and enhance problem-solving.
Offloading: AI can take over routine tasks such as data entry, appointment scheduling and preliminary analysis of medical images, reducing the administrative burden on doctors.
Extending: By providing instant access to a vast amount of medical knowledge and up-to-date research, AI can support doctors in diagnosing complex cases, planning treatment, and monitoring patient progress more effectively.
Offloading: Automation powered by AI can handle tedious or dangerous tasks like heavy lifting or working with hazardous materials, making the work environment safer for manufacturing workers.
Extending: AI can provide real-time monitoring and predictive maintenance of machinery, helping manufacturing workers to prevent downtime and ensure the smooth operation of the production line.
Like electricity, AI has the potential for both positive and negative impact on how we live, work, think and feel. While electricity has powered economic and intellectual development and improved living standards, it has also helped to increase environmental, political and social inequities.
Similarly, while AI could be used as a force for improving human living, working and education standards it could also increase environmental, political and social inequity.
Ultimately, how we use AI and the impact it has on our lives and work is down to us, the humans.
By reframing how we think about AI, and shifting from the concept of “AI as technology” to “AI as infrastructure”, we open up a new way of thinking and talking about human-AI relationships which highlight its full potential and our role in helping to shape it.
PS: If you design learning experiences and want to get hands on and experiment with AI supported by me, you can apply for a place on an upcoming cohort of my AI-Powered Learning Science Bootcamp here.
PPS: If you work in a large company ahead of the AI curve, you can apply to take part in my & Gianluca Mauro’s AI research (or just sign up to learn more about it) here.