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The author is the co-founder of LinkedIn, co-founder of Inflection AI, and partner at Greylock. This article is inspired by the commencement speech given at the Bologna Business School on September 8
Artificial intelligence will shape all our lives. It will become the primary technology we use to make decisions and navigate the world — the mind’s steam engine; Cognitive GPS; A tool for orientation, search and navigation.
But the technology is in our hands — not the other way around. And with that, we have the opportunity to enhance and define the future of humanity.
Only a few innovations have the potential to shape and measure us in this way. The last two were internet and mobile phones. AI should not only be on that list, it should sit at the top of it, as it has the potential to enhance how we use the internet, mobile phones and many other technologies.
What will a world shaped by AI look like? To answer this question, let’s go back to the future we once imagined. In the 1950s, we thought flying cars were just on the horizon. We didn’t get them then, nor have we (although we’ve made progress towards that). But in the same decade, US President Dwight Eisenhower established the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, the technology that created the Internet.
We had no idea we’d get something like the Internet or a mobile phone — but we did. And those tools have revolutionized the lives of the majority of humans on Earth. Now, humanity is envisioning a new future with AI.
Given the speed and spread of AI, some people fear that it could potentially lead to apocalypse, while others argue that it will usher in a new utopia. They either cheer or worry about AI reshaping our world, whether their lens is gene editing, geopolitics, weather — or any other aspect of life. But we should avoid setting up camp around any extreme, especially at this stage of technological development.
Let’s go back to the car for a moment. say Cars Today’s technology is new. We can focus on the utopian dream of a spacefaring car. Or we can focus on dystopian traffic jams. But, at this point, I recommend that we focus on the car itself, as a means of innovation and social transformation.
The answer to our challenges is not to slow down technology, but to speed it up. Technology is a tool. And the faster we have it in our hands, the faster we can solve the problems we face — and the problems they create.
Let’s shape the tool that will shape us — and consider three questions. How can I do it better? How can I increase beauty in the world? How can I make better tools? And To enhance beauty for the benefit of my fellow man?
Examples of humans asking – and acting on – these questions can be found in Renaissance Italy – notably in Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome, which crowns the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The beauty of Brunelleschi’s dome can be attributed to many things. It has wonderful frescoes on its interior surfaces and on its stone vaults. But to me its beauty lies in things long gone: the people who made it and the tools they used to make it.
It took Brunelleschi 16 years to build the dome, which began construction in 1420. His ambition was to build it without timber reinforcement, which would not have sustained a cupola of that size. He wanted to innovate. So Brunelleschi invented the mobile scaffolding. He also designed a crane to raise the bricks, which he arranged in a double-shell structure in an innovative herringbone pattern. This not only gave stability to the inner bricks but also maintained the curvature of the dome.
Brunelleschi then collaborated with several craftsmen to assemble these instruments and domes. He worked with famous Florentine mathematicians to make calculations. He teamed up with blacksmiths and carpenters to build cranes, mobile platforms and scaffolding. Hundreds of workers – from bricklayers to coopers – joined him.
Brunelleschi answered those three questions. But there is a fourth: How can my work transcend me and benefit mankind, now and in the future?
In creating his dome, Brunelleschi carried forward the traditions of Gothic, Romanesque, and Classical architecture from the past and influenced how countless new buildings were constructed. He expanded the toolbox for generations of artists and architects who are credited with the linear approach and the invention of mobile scaffolding. His tools and techniques were used not only in art and architecture but also in many other fields and applications.
Where the Renaissance masters primarily reshaped the physical realm, AI now gives us the opportunity to do the same with the mental realm. Whether it’s writing essays or books, creating art and poetry, or helping us communicate with each other in ways we wouldn’t have tried otherwise, we’re already seeing how technology can supercharge the way we share or express our ideas.
Brunelleschi painstakingly shaped his tools, and his tools shaped him — and all of us. When we think about a future shaped by AI, we should remember the famous phrase of media theorists John Culkin and Marshall McLuhan: “What we see, we become. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” AI is our cognitive “mobile scaffolding.” And it will help us build all kinds of cathedrals of the mind—many of which we could not have built before.