Town Hall Seattle and Third Place Books present Simon Johnson for a discussion of his new book, Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity.
With today’s emerging technologies, including things like artificial intelligence, are quickly becoming mainstream. AIs like ChatGPT, the chatbot that can produce answers to questions and write essays and poems, have become sensational hits in our culture. What’s the cost of all of these so-called advances?
If you ask economist Simon Johnson, the cost could be astronomical. In his latest book, Power and Progress (co-authored with MIT’s Daron Acemoglu), Johnson believes that we are at a pivotal point in history where technology could either provide widespread prosperity or accelerate the power and wealth gaps in our society. Many people throughout history, and in current today, have assumed that technological advances mean progress for all.
Johnson explores how this assumption actually played out throughout history. The wealth generated by technological improvements in agriculture during the European Middle Ages was captured by the nobility and used to build grand cathedrals while peasants remained on the edge of starvation. England’s first hundred years of industrialization delivered stagnant incomes for working people. And throughout the world today, Johnson argues, digital technologies and artificial intelligence undermine jobs and democracy through excessive automation, massive data collection, and intrusive surveillance. So are we doomed to repeat history?
Johnson would say no. He also demonstrates that the path of technology was once — and may again be — brought under control. The tremendous computing advances of the last half-century can become empowering and democratizing tools, but not if all major decisions remain in the hands of a few powerful tech leaders. Combining economic theory and a manifesto for a better society, Johnson provides the vision to reshape how we innovate and the question of who really gains from technological advances.
Simon Johnson is the Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT and a former chief economist to the IMF. His much-viewed opinion pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Atlantic, and elsewhere. With law professor James Kwak, Simon is the co-author of the bestsellers 13 Bankers and White House Burning and a founder of the widely-cited economics blog The Baseline Scenario.
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