When we sat down over a year ago to start charting our first projects about how technology is reshaping the ways we live and work, we realized pretty quickly that in order to achieve any grounding in those questions we needed a better sense of the technology at the root of all the change –– namely artificial intelligence.
It’s hard to overstate the impact AI has had in just a short time. In less than a decade it has gone from being a relatively specialized tool to one described as the defining technology of our age, transforming our daily habits, revolutionizing industries and ushering in an entirely new operating system for humanity in which every person can be reduced to and exploited by the data he or she generates. Along the way, AI has taken up residence in our collective imagination as both savior and bogeyman: Can it solve our most pressing problems? Will it destroy us in doing so?
Yet despite AI’s indelible influence on how we live right now, discussions around it often gravitate to forward-looking, almost impatient hypotheticals: When will we all have driverless cars? When will robots be able to take care of us? Displace us? These are important questions, but not ones we or anyone can answer reliably. What’s more, framing questions about AI around future hypotheticals distracts us from lessons that can be learned from examining its impact right now.
One of Aventine’s goals is to explore the forces changing the way we live from the ground up. We wanted to look at how AI takes root. How does it become adopted and absorbed by companies, deployed by the people within them and integrated to the point that it becomes an everyday tool?
To answer these questions, we sent two journalists into the world to find out.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, a staff writer for The New Yorker, set out to explore what the process of adopting AI means and looks like in practice. After several months auditioning possible companies through which to tell his story, he was granted extraordinary access to John Deere. The result is a uniquely immersive look at how a 160-year-old maker of farm equipment transformed itself around tools made possible by artificial intelligence. Deere’s multiyear effort — which required massive financial investment, a major acquisition and significant cultural shifts within the company — reveals that the steps required to adopt AI are neither obvious nor straightforward. It also reveals AI as part of a much longer journey of technological change, and shows how individual decisions made along the way — both by consumers and industry players — can have irreversible effects on how progress unfolds.
Clive Thompson, a contributing writer for both The New York Times Magazine and Wired, interviewed over a dozen roboticists to reveal how AI-driven improvements in manipulation and vision technologies are changing the nature of what robots can do and who can use them, vastly increasing the potential reach of automation. At the same time he reveals the very finite limits of these new technologies, a reality check on the idea that robots will soon be able to do anything humans can.
We exist in a unique and significant moment — one in which an enormously powerful and transformative technology is altering the course of our collective future. Neither of these stories is a quick read or a hot take. They are not designed to predict specific outcomes, but to deepen our understanding of how so-called inevitable change takes hold.
We hope you enjoy the stories.