- Samuel Hammond, senior economist at the Foundation for American Innovation, argues that the disruptive force of artificial intelligence could be as transformative as the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.
- Like the printing press, AI isn’t just about making information accessible, Hammond contends; it’s about challenging the established order.
- AI promises endless efficiencies, but also can also create disruption to our institutions and perhaps even our current world order.
In an era where technology is advancing at breakneck speed, it’s easy to overlook the historical parallels that can offer us valuable insights. Samuel Hammond, senior economist at the Foundation for American Innovation, and a prominent voice in the field, argues that the disruptive force of artificial intelligence could be as transformative as the printing press was in the 15th century.
Hammond’s perspective on the potential near-term impact of AI on government and institutions is rooted in history and the transformative power of technology. He draws a striking parallel between the rise of AI and the historical significance of the printing press, suggesting that AI’s impact could be just as destabilizing and consequential in his three-part series on Substack, “AI and Leviathan.”
“My null hypothesis is that the democratization of powerful AI capabilities will be at least as destabilizing as the printing press,” he writes. “The printing press was also a mere information technology, and yet it led to civil wars and uprisings against the established order, and ultimately drove the consolidation of the modern nation-state.”
Hammond delves further into the potential near-term impact of AI on our government and institutions in conversation with Upstream’s Erik Torenberg.
“When you look across history at when there is broad flourishing of society, say, like, the Florentine Renaissance, it isn’t just that they had like the best masonry and the best banking, and so forth. It’s like they had the best everything,” he explains to Torenberg in the video at the top of the page. Looking at today’s world, countries that rank the highest in economic freedom and on the human development index “also have the best functioning governments and the least corrupted markets.”
This phenomenon, which Hammond calls the “X-factor behind institutions,” doesn’t boil down to “geography or demographics or major structural forces, “but there’s also these extra efficiencies that that matter for society as a whole.”
AI promises endless efficiencies but also risks disrupting our institutions and current world order. To move forward, we have to learn how to grapple with the past.
A Brief History: The Printing Press and Its Revolutionary Impact
In the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press didn’t just democratize knowledge; it ignited civil wars, uprisings, and the formation of modern nation-states. Hammond contends that AI could have a similarly transformative impact, challenging existing power structures and fostering more inclusive governance.
In “AI and Leviathan: Part II,” Hammond points out that the English Civil War, a defining moment in the formation of modern governance, occurred at an inflection point in the printing revolution. The first publication of the King James Bible in 1611, just 30 years before the war, and the birth of journalism with the first regularly published English newspaper, the Oxford Gazette, were pivotal. These publications fueled public discourse and, in some cases, dissent, setting the stage for political upheaval.
“These technological regime changes precede institutional regime changes,” Hammond says, noting how the printing press played a role in the consolidation of fragmented kingdoms into modern nation-states, leading to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
“The printing press was also a mere information technology, and yet it led to civil wars and uprisings against the established order,” Hammond writes. AI, like the printing press, isn’t just about making information accessible; it’s about challenging the established order.
Samuel Hartlib, an English reformer and contemporary of the printing revolution, aimed to record all human knowledge and make it universally available. Hammond sees a parallel between Hartlib and today’s AI evangelists who advocate for the democratization of AI capabilities.
Ethical and Regulatory Hurdles: Navigating the AI Minefield
As we stand on the cusp of an AI revolution, the ethical and regulatory challenges are manifold. “The issue is not that AI and informational technology are inherently destabilizing. Rather, the issue is that society’s technological base is shifting faster than its institutional superstructure can keep up,” Hammond writes In “AI and Leviathan: Part II.”
When it comes to regulation, Hammond poses a thought-provoking question: “How would you regulate AI?” he asks Torenberg. “I think the right level would be to say, you know, after transformative AI, what does the regulation even look like?”
Elaborating further on Substack, he suggests that our current regulatory frameworks might become obsolete in the face of transformative AI. “Whether or not this leads to a bureaucratic expansion is another question,” he says. “On the one hand, AI could enable regulators to devise rules with fractal specificity, micromanaging things that used to be illegible. On the other hand, the human and physical footprint of our bureaucracies could radically shrink, as even the finest-grained forms of compliance become automatic and thus invisible.”
The ethical considerations are equally complex. Hammond identifies two camps within the AI community: those who advocate for stringent regulation until safety can be assured, and those who favor open-source acceleration. “These schisms are reflected in the different AI camps,” he notes on Substack. “Some favor regulating AI development until we can assure perfect safety, perhaps through a licensing regime. Others wish to plow forward, accelerating access through open source.”
Hammond also sees the democratization of AI as a double-edged sword. While it has the potential to unlock new capabilities, it also comes with significant negative externalities. “As AI democratizes capabilities with significant negative externalities,” he writes in “AI and Leviathan: Part III,” “it will simultaneously unlock new institutional forms for dealing with those externalities.”
The Future is Now, and History is Our Guide
AI by no means the first disruptive technology to emerge since the 15th century, but navigating its transformative potential requires a nuanced understanding of its historical parallels. “Software will eat the world,” Marc Andreessen once famously said and, just like software, AI is now eating the world, Hammond posits.
“Anytime we’ve had these technical technology shifts, it’s really shifted the balance of power between nation states and society,” he tells Torenberg. “And I think this one is no different.”
With this new technological frontier on the horizon, the importance of learning from history cannot be overstated. Decisions made today will undoubtedly shape tomorrow’s institutions.
Across Media & Entertainment sector, the urgency of these considerations intensifies. AI has already made its mark, influencing everything from content creation to audience engagement. Yet, Hammond warns that this transformative game-changer comes with its own set of destabilizing risks.
Moving forward, a balanced approach is essential. We must embrace the optimism that AI’s capabilities bring, he says, while exercising caution informed by historical lessons. After all, in this rapidly evolving landscape, history remains our most reliable guide.