WRITING / Why AI may be similar to Air Conditioning

PUBLISHED: 17.04.2023

614 words — 3 mins

Why AI may be similar to Air Conditioning

Don‘t sweat it

In recent weeks I‘ve read several pieces on the speculative impacts of “AI” (in its incarnation as ChatGPT) on the field of journalism. Many of these arguments are often rather hyperbolic predictions of imminent job losses and disruptions.

I don‘t agree with most of them, mostly because they rely on flimsy data and a tech-deterministic model of the impact of technology on jobs. I don‘t want to add to the pile but want to offer a different argument: what if chatGPT will have a similar impact on journalism as air conditioning?

(The following is based on the excellent paper: ‘Staying Cool—The Impact of Air Conditioning on News Work and the Modern Newsroom’ by Will Mari (2010))

Pre-war newsrooms were built to impress as these had (similar to some tech companies) a monopoly on the local advertising markets. They weren‘t a good place to work, though. Often close to the printing presses, offices were loud, sweaty, filled with cigarette smoke and hot. While journalists were able to escape these buildings for reporting, they inevitably had to return to finish their stories.

Journalism during these decades was, for the most part, a dirty, blue-collar job. The training happened on the job and the profession bread its own machismo.

All this slowly changed with the commercialization of air conditioning during the 40s. Newspapers were quick to adopt this new technology, often at great cost, touting their effect on workers’ productivity, as a way to keep machines cool, and the paper free from mould. Such adoption was often accompanied by congratulatory coverage in the industry press.

In the following years, AC became one of the dominant factors, slowly changing the face of journalism. They not only allowed newspapers to recruit from universities, thus slowly transforming journalism into a white-collar profession, but it was also a weapon in the fight against the newly emerging advertising industry. 5th Avenue was fishing for the same talent, often offering air-conditioned offices as a job perk in the same way you‘d offer people an in-house masseur today.

Magazines, keen to recruit the best and brightest journalism grads, also touted their AC systems as part of their appeal. Life, then in its heyday, invested $50,000 of a $250,000 budget for a new photo lab in its AC system, then considered state-of-the-art and an example for less lofty publications.

To stay competitive you needed AC.

With the first wave of computerization in the industry, AC became even more important. If you had an air-conditioned building running computers became feasible without transforming the newsroom into an oven.

As the century wore on, AC units were used not so much to cool people, but rather the machines—in this case, the mainframes and minicomputers of the 1960s and then 1970s.

In short: in the decades after the second world war AC have become part of the invisible infrastructure of journalism, only noticeable should it fail on a sweltering summer day. They enabled not only modern office buildings with their glass facades but also helped professionalize journalism from its blue-collar roots.

What if ChatGPT‘s (or better LLM‘s) effect will be similar? Not disruptive but rather slowly transformative, despite the breathless reporting at the moment.

  • They will integrate smoothly into existing work processes while being praised as a way to increase productivity
  • Their effect will level out with everyone in the industry adopting the technology
  • They will slowly over time change the profession in combination with other trends
  • They will become part of the technological infrastructure, barely noticeable in journalist‘s day-to-day job

Given of course LLMs are even able to deliver on their promises long-term, which is something that remains to be seen.

Linked Notes

A Critical Reading List

  1. How does AI/ML/DL work?
  2. Limitations and challenges of AI
  3. Better reporting
  4. AI & Jobs
  5. Criticism

How does AI/ML/DL work?

Course: Artificial Intelligence (Fall 2015) Prof. Patrick Henry Winston. MIT.

A course including 12 video lectures (about 50 minutes each) on the technical details of AI. I especially found the two lectures on neural nets helpful, which give a great introduction on the topic.

Jason’s Machine Learning 101 (December, 2017) A great an in depth overview over AI, machine learning and deep learning and how all those things actually work, as well as some notes on limitations and challenges.

Limitations and challenges of AI

A Berkeley View of Systems Challenges for AI (December 15, 2017) Ion Stoica, Dawn Song, Raluca Ada Popa, David Pa erson, Michael W. Mahoney, Randy Katz, Anthony D. Joseph, Michael Jordan, Joseph M. Hellerstein, Joseph Gonzalez, Ken Goldberg, Ali Ghodsi, David Culler, Pieter Abbeel. Berkley EECS.

Deep Learning: A Critical Appraisal (December 18., 2017). Marcus, Gary. New York University.

Gary Marcus’ view on deep learning is more critical, than the Berkeley overview. He argues, that deep learning wont be enough to ever reach a general artificial intelligence. There are definite limits to the technique.

Against a background of considerable progress in areas such as speech recognition, image recognition, and game playing, and considerable enthusiasm in the popular press, I present ten concerns for deep learning, and suggest that deep learning must be supplemented by other techniques if we are to reach artificial general intelligence.

A summary can be found in this Wired Article Wise up, deep learning may never create a general purpose AI (January 20., 2018) by Greg Williams.

Innateness, AlphaZero, and Artificial Intelligence. (n.a.). Marcus, Gary. New York University

In this paper, I consider as a test case a recent series of papers by Silver et al (Silver et al., 2017a) on AlphaGo and its successors that have been presented as an argument that a “even in the most challenging of domains: it is possible to train to superhuman level, without human examples or guidance”, “starting tabula rasa.” I argue that these claims are overstated, for multiple reasons. I close by arguing that artificial intelligence needs greater attention to innateness, and I point to some proposals about what that innateness might look like.

Greedy, Brittle, Opaque, and Shallow: The Downsides to Deep Learning (February 02., 2018). Pontin, Jason. Wired.

A Wired article, which bundles most of the criticism and known limits of DL/ML.

We’ve been promised a revolution in how and why nearly everything happens. But the limits of modern artificial intelligence are closer than we think.

Better reporting

Troubling Trends in Machine Learning Scholarship(July 10., 2018). Zachary C. Lipton & Jacob Steinhardt. Approximately Correct.

Litpon and Steinhardt examined rhetorical and narrative patterns in machine learning papers, published by scientists. While all are fairly harmless, they nethertheless can irritate a casual reader and lead to a missrepresentation in articles.

Flawed scholarship threatens to mislead the public and stymie future research by compromising ML’s intellectual foundations. Indeed, many of these problems have recurred cyclically throughout the history of artificial intelligence and, more broadly, in scientific research. (…) By promoting clear scientific thinking and communication, we can sustain the trust and investment currently enjoyed by our community.

AI & Jobs

What can machine learning do? Workforce implications (December 22, 2017). Erik Brynjolfsson, Tom Mitchell. Science.

A great article on the characteristics a task needs to have, to be automated by a machine learning system.

Although recent advances in the capabilities of ML systems are impressive, they are not equally suitable for all tasks. The cur- rent wave of successes draw particularly heavily on a paradigm known as supervised learning, typically using DNNs. They can be immensely powerful in domains that are well suited for such use. However, their competence is also dramatically narrower and more fragile than human decision-making, and there are many tasks for which this approach is completely ineffective


The Wired Brain: How not to talk about an AI-powered Future (March 9., 2017). Montanani, Ines.

Some good thoughts about the representation of AI in the media and ideas on how to better report on AI.

The new opportunities emerging from Machine Learning are very tempting. The wildest scenarios from decades of futuristic science fiction are suddenly (almost) possible. But does that mean they’re actually the most practical things to build? The problem here lies in how those fictional ideas were conceived. The way people imagine technology of the future is heavily biased by their current experiences and expectations.

The Smart, the Stupid, and the Catastrophically Scary: An Interview with an Anonymous Data Scientist (November 2016). n.A.. Logic Magazine, Issue 01: Intelligence.

An Interview with an anonymous data scientists on the relationship between big data and machine learning, the artifical marketing hype and limits of the technology. Highly recommended reading.

Situating Methods in the Magic of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (September 20, 2017). Elish, M. C. and Boyd, Danah. Communication Monographs.

Elish and Boyd explore the myth around Big Data and AI as “magical” technologies. The article is worth reading for an insight in the business of AI and Big Data, as well as a critical perspecitve on the real possibilities and challenges of both technologies. A shorter versiom is available on Medium.

The uncritical embrace of AI technologies has troubling implications for established forms of accountability, and for the protection of our most vulnerable populations. AI is increasingly being positioned as the answer to every question, in part because AI seems to promise not only efficiency and insight, but also neutrality and fairness — ideals that are often viewed as impossible to achieve through individual human or organizational decision-making processes. The fantasies and promises of AI often obscure the limitations of the field and the complicated trade-offs of technical work done under the rubric of “AI.”

Imagining the thinking machine: Technological myths and the rise of artificial intelligence (June 20, 2017). Simone Natale, Andrea Ballatore. Convergence.

Similar to Elish and Boyd explore Natale and Ballatore three narratives and myths around AI and the consequences of those. Focussed more on the role media plays in forming the public imaginations around “the thinking machine”, this paper is worth a look for media professionals.

Based on a content analysis of articles on AI published in two magazines, the Scientific American and the New Scientist, which were aimed at a broad readership of scientists, engineers and technologists, three dominant patterns in the construction of the AI myth are identified: (1) the recurrence of analogies and discursive shifts, by which ideas and concepts from other fields were employed to describe the functioning of AI technologies; (2) a rhetorical use of the future, imagining that present shortcomings and limitations will shortly be overcome and (3) the relevance of controversies around the claims of AI, which we argue should be considered as an integral part of the discourse surrounding the AI myth.

Manufacturing an Artificial Intelligence Revolution (November 27, 2017). Katz, Yarden.

Definitely one of the most critical views on AI I’ve read so far. I am not sure, if I agree with every point Katz raises, but it‘s a perspective worth considering.

I argue here that the “AI” label has been rebranded to promote a contested vision of world governance through big data. Major tech companies have played a key role in the rebranding, partly by hiring academics that work on big data (which has been effectively relabeled “AI”) and helping to create the sense that super-human AI is imminent. However, I argue that the latest AI systems are premised on an old behaviorist view of intelligence that’s far from encompassing human thought. In practice, the confusion around AI’s capacities serves as a pretext for imposing more metrics upon human endeavors and advancing traditional neoliberal policies. The revived AI, like its predecessors, seeks intelligence with a “view from nowhere” (disregarding race, gender and class)—which can also be used to mask institutional power in visions of AI-based governance. Ultimately, AI’s rebranding showcases how corporate interests can rapidly reconfigure academic fields. It also brings to light how a nebulous technical term (AI) may be exploited for political gain.


Understanding Automation

  1. Automation doesn’t happen on the job-level, but the task-level.

  2. Automation doesn’t strictly mean human replacement, but also augmenting given tasks.

  3. Automation will always need maintenance, updates, and upgrades. There is not a date X, where the process is finished.

  4. Automation happens, if it‘s economically beneficial, not if it‘s technically feasible. It‘s — of course — the product and producer of capitalism.

Keeping this in mind, almost every new technology can be placed in one of the following quadrants.

Tomatoes, Tomatoes

This section from Jack Stilgoe‘s excellent book How‘s driving innovation? is in my opinion a perfect example against the technological determinism inherent to the automation discourse. Just because technology exist, doesn’t mean it will be adopted. Automation is driven not by technology but by politics and economics.

If we want to understand the politics of today’s and tomorrow’s technologies, we should look back to the technologies that are now regarded as part of society’s inevitable industrialisation and ask who benefitted and why. The philosopher of technology Langdon Winner asks us to consider the tomato. The tomatoes on a twenty-first century supermarket shelf are the way they are because of a set of organisational and technological choices. The technologisation of the tomato was extraordinarily rapid. In 1960, the tomato fields of California contained fruit in a variety of shapes and sizes and were picked by hand; mostly by the hands of tens of thousands of braceros (immigrant Mexican workers). By 1970, almost all of California’s tomatoes were harvested by machines.1

The machine that enabled the industrialisation of tomato farming came from a collaboration between a fruit breeder and an aeronautical engineer at the University of California, Davis, in the 1940s. In one pass, the tomato harvester could cut a row of plants, shake the fruit from their stalks and drop them into a trailer. Humans were required only to drive the machine, maintain it, check the tomatoes and throw out any dirt, stalks or small animals that ended up in the trailer. After early attempts to get the fruit to survive the journey from field to trailer intact, the researchers realised that, for the tomato harvester to work as intended, the tomato itself had to be tougher and less tasty—good for ketchup and processed food; bad for salads. Fields had to be rectangular, flat and well-irrigated. Farmers had to learn how to, in the words of one of the engineers, ‘grow for the machine’.2 Each device was expensive but, if a farm was big enough to afford one, it could dramatically cut costs.


The tomato machines were available for a number of years before they were deployed widely. They only became popular once policies were introduced to expel cheap immigrant labour. This allowed US farm workers to earn more, but increased farmers’ incentives to automate and turn their fields over to tomatoes.

  1. The economic history of the tomato harvester is explained by Clemens et al.(2018). 

  2. Quoted in The Tomato Harvester, Boom California, https://boomcalifornia.com/2013/06/24/thinking-through-the-tomato-har vester/