Understanding AI in the Context of History

AI in the context of history.

It often seems that you can’t visit a website, read a newspaper, or use your smartphone without the touch of artificial intelligence. Everywhere you look, there is an article, an opinion, a video, or a blog post about AI and its good or bad impact on society.

Utopia or dystopia awaits, it seems; take your pick.

In this concise post, I’ll explore AI’s history and why it matters, its current impact, and take a look at its future potential.

As it’s a topic of keen interest to me, I spend a great deal of time reading, watching, listening and thinking about AI. My principal focus is not only the business setting but also the larger picture on both sides of the arguments on societal impact. And while I’m keen on getting to grips with science facts, I’m as susceptible as anyone else on giving attention to science fiction. The important thing is being able to separate the two and not mistake one for the other.

Ever since ChatGPT arrived on the scene in November 2022 – just 18 months ago – buzz and hype have run parallel to some of the extraordinary things generative-AI chatbots can already do, and what they enable people to do.

Gartner 2023 hype cycle for AI.

Gartner’s AI hype cycle, above, shows generative AI at the peak of inflated expectations. That was in July last year – maybe it’s still in that position, although I suspect generative AI is fast approaching the trough of disillusionment. How long it will take to emerge from that state will occupy many people’s minds throughout the rest of this year and next.

It’s worth noting that Gartner’s predictions on how long it will take for a given technology to reach a plateau of productivity are geared toward a state of mainstream adoption starting to take off. According to Gartner, generative AI still has a long journey ahead to reach that state: five to ten years.

The Importance of Historical Context

Increasingly, I’ve been looking to history to help me better understand the present and gain some insight into the future. But much of what I do see out there amongst the huge quantity of content is the digital equivalent of crystal balls or tea leaves, much of it of questionable quality and trustworthiness.

Yesterday, I started reading a new book, just published, that I think will help me understand the history of some major milestones in AI development, and in the right context to aid a better understanding of now and next.

How AI Ate The World book cover.

The book is How AI Ate the World: A Brief History of Artificial Intelligence – and Its Long Future by journalist Chris Stokel-Walker. I’m reading the Kindle edition and hit the 15% mark late last night.

Its beginning is very good in recounting how AI made its start in the early 1950s, mainly in the UK and the US. Stokel-Walker provides a highly readable exploration of AI’s bumpy journey since then, explaining the achievements and disappointments by some of the key personalities of that era, such as Alan Turing in the UK, John McCarthy in the US – two men widely considered to be among the fathers of artificial intelligence – and many others.

I’m looking forward to the AI adventure I see coming in the remaining 85% of the book!

He answers critical questions about the AI revolution, such as what humanity might be jeopardising; the professions that will win and lose; and whether the existential threat technologists Elon Musk and Sam Altman are warning about is realistic – or a smokescreen to divert attention away from their growing power.

Amazon UK book listing 9 May 2024

Understanding the history of AI is crucial in grasping why it has become a focal point of modern technology and its potential for the future. Historical context helps demystify the rapid advancements in AI, illustrating how past challenges were overcome (or not), the peaks and troughs of progress, and how it all paved the way for current successes. It also provides a baseline for understanding the limitations and ethical dilemmas that have emerged over time.

Food for Thought

The dual perspective of optimism and caution provides a balanced approach that can help maximise AI’s benefits while addressing potential drawbacks. As AI continues to evolve, so too must our approaches to managing its impact on our world.

Exploring AI’s past, present, and future, as presented in a book like Stokel-Walker’s, serves not only to inform and entertain but also to inspire thoughtful consideration of how we deploy AI technologies.


I prompted ChatGPT Plus to create a hero image for this post based on the working title, ‘Understanding the Role of AI Through the Lens of History and Future Aspirations’. The image at the top was created by DALL-E 3 to the subsequent prompt from ChatGPT Plus: “The image should feature a juxtaposition of classical and futuristic elements: an old, ornate library filled with books on one side, and a sleek, modern tech lab with advanced computers and holographic displays on the other side. The transition between these two worlds should be seamless, symbolizing the evolution from past to future. Soft lighting and a sense of depth should draw the viewer in.”

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.