As I delve deeper into the possibilities and pitfalls of AI, I’m increasingly finding myself that AI has become the “printing press” of our time — a title I would have thought belonged to the Internet only a year ago.
Back in the 1400s, the printing press disrupted the existing landscape of writing by entirely automating a process that had previously been confined to human effort. Initially, it was used mainly as a means of making bibles accessible to the masses, but within a few decades, it radically transformed the dissemination of ideas, cutting a direct path through history to the flood of content that we navigate today.
Certainly, handcrafted books were more aesthetically pleasing and personal. The affluent who could afford to commission books likely had favorite scribes. A printing press could never decorate a manuscript or incorporate the myriad personal touches that made a hand-copied bible appear almost divinely inspired.
The feelings of the scribes as they watched their work disappear are not hard to imagine. Their skills and hard work suddenly seemed pointless, although we still appreciate their artistry today, centuries later.
Eventually, the press transformed what was once a craft industry consolidating power into a machine that distributed bibles (and literacy) to the masses. And yet, the skills feeding this voracious new technology—paper making, binding, stitching, typesetting, font design—eventually superseded the work of the scribes, generating far more jobs than were lost as books filled empty shelves for a century.
Now we stand on the precipice of another fundamental shift in how and why we create and consume content. With that in mind it may be instructive to revisit just a few of the impacts of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press as it revolutionized writing and communication:
- Knowledge for the Masses: Pre-printing press, knowledge was a luxury good. Books, hand-copied by monks with weary fingers, were more valuable than gold. The press reversed this — transforming books into commonplace items. Knowledge was no longer a privilege of the elite; it became accessible to all.
Language Standardization: Before the press, communication was an unruly mosaic of languages and dialects. Spelling diverged wildly, and conveying your thoughts beyond your community was akin to hacking through a dense forest and finding only strangers on the other side. The printing press opened highways across this wilderness, standardizing language and spelling, and creating a linguistic framework that everyone could follow.
Literacy Boom: As books became cheaper and more accessible, the sharing of ideas became easier than ever. To break free from the constraints of social class, reading became an essential skill. To fill the jobs that were needed, the “luxury” of education became something mandatory.
Accelerated Exchange of Ideas: The printing press supercharged the exchange of ideas. Have a radical concept? Print it. Disagree with a notion? Crank out a pamphlet challenging it. With print, the world became an open forum for ideas, where debates, theories, and discoveries flowed freely and swiftly — if not always calmly.
Catalyst for the Scientific Method: Before the printing press, the idea of discovery was limited to universities and cities, with each researcher playing their own tune. The printing press established a standardized method of sharing and scrutinizing information, facilitating peer review and repeatability, the cornerstones of the scientific method. It allowed ideas to be tested, replicated, and shared across continents, thereby enabling the creation of a harmonious symphony of scientific advancement.
There’s no doubt in my mind that AI will shake the foundations of our world in similar, profound ways, including:
- Democratization of Expertise: AI can bring expertise to anyone with a laptop. Regardless of your question or the complexity of the information required, it can provide a response tailored to your level of understanding. Just as the printing press democratized books, AI can democratize knowledge.
Accelerated Innovation: The journey from imagination to reality has been accelerating over the last century. AI will serve as a catalyst for this innovation, propelling the pace of creation to unimaginable speeds.
Creative Surge: AI can be used as a creative collaborator, always ready to ideate with you, providing inspiration when you’re stuck or enhancing your existing vision. With an infinite palette and an endless canvas, this new technology may foster an unprecedented surge in human creativity that pushes the boundaries of art, music, and other creative fields.
Reimagining Education: The conventional classroom is a production line for knowledge, tailored to fit all students, regardless of their individual strengths and weaknesses. AI can offer personalized learning pathways that adapt to each student’s unique learning style and strengths. It can not only reimagine how education is delivered and experienced, but allow every student to follow a custom curriculum.
Global Unity: Imagine a world where barriers of language and understanding crumble, connecting people from every corner of the globe. AI-powered translation could make this a reality, significantly altering how we communicate and collaborate on global challenges.
Will there be negative outcomes as well? If history serves as a guide, that’s inevitable. Just as Protestantism arose to challenge Catholicism out of a personal relationship with God facilitated by affordable, readily available bibles, so too will modern doctrines collapse as ideas themselves become externalized resources.
Faced with such disruption, people will endlessly debate its limitations and dangers while the world moves forward. And, frankly, even now, this new world is appearing at a pace that is as astonishing as it is profound.
Of course, the rise of the internet means we already live in a world where distribution and adoption are nearly effortless. The challenge lies in recognizing the opportunities of this new technology and exploiting them as quickly as possible. For those slow to adapt, it could spell the end of their creative careers.
Just as there was resistance to giving the “word of God” to the masses, there will undoubtedly be a crusade against these “unholy” methods of creating art and ideas and calls for their suppression.
Creative AI is here to stay and it’s not going back in its box. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can not only benefit from this revolutionary technology but also influence its trajectory towards its true destiny.