The 19th and 20th centuries were prolific in technological developments. The railway, the telegraph, the telephone or the electric light bulb are inventions prior to 1900. Then came the airplane, penicillin, nuclear energy or computers. The world was full of innovations and untapped economic possibilities, but corporate competition led to monopolies and oligopolies that destroyed as much as they built (they call that creative destruction), with resources vast enough to make the world bend the knee. governments and, of course, the people.
The most representative moment of that world in full change occurred in the United States, during the transition from one century to another. The “robber barons”, the Morgans, Rockefellers, Valderbilt, Astor, Carnegie or Hearst decided almost everything, from what was the truth (through the press) to the price of wheat.
A wonderful phrase by Jay Gould, the great patron of the American railroads, remains from that time as an example of the arrogance of a whole generation of magnates. When told that he could no longer starve workers and would face mass strikes, Gould replied that this was not a problem: “I can hire half the workers and have the other half killed.” One example among many of the lack of ethics, or even decency, in the creation and expansion of business empires.
Curiously, so far in the 21st century, the large oligopolies are forced to eat from the same plate and compete on the same technological terrain, inherited from the 20th century. Although the largest company in the world right now is the Saudi oil company Aramco, almost all of those that continue live on the chip and the algorithm: Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet (formerly Google), Amazon, Meta (formerly Facebook).
These days, two of the greats, Microsoft and Alphabet, are hastily finalizing the trials of their artificial intelligence offerings. At the moment they are not much. But both play a lot, perhaps their existence, in the stake. Especially Alphabet, 80% of whose revenue comes from something as old as advertising. Let us be aware that artificial intelligence represents a leap from what we know to what we do not know and perhaps we are not able to control: we are talking about machines with cognitive capacity, that is, to speak, understand, learn and change by themselves.
Whenever artificial intelligence is discussed, the ethical commitments of its creators are listened to and those three laws enunciated by Isaac Asimov are evoked: a robot will not harm a human, a robot will comply with human orders, except when they violate the first law, and a robot will protect its own existence as long as it does not contradict the two previous laws.
We know that until now these big companies have systematically played dirty, both abusing their dominant position in the market and manipulating (via algorithm) their users. In a very short time they will launch (they will launch at us) something as delicate and with as many unknowns as artificial intelligence. They will compete to the death with each other. They will stop at nothing.
And yet, we tend to believe that everything will be fine. Centuries pass. Human ingenuity remains.