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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is expected to be characterised by wide applicability; for this reason, it has been quickly labelled a General Purpose Technology (GPT). In this paper, we critically assess whether AI is really a GPT. Provided that the answer is ‘not exactly’, we suggest that an alternative framework – drawn from the literature on large technical systems (LTS) – could be useful to understand the nature of AI. AI, in its current understanding, is a ‘system technology’ – a collection of techniques built and enabled by the conjunction of many sub-systems. From this premise, we try the fundamental building blocks of LTS on AI to provide new insights on its nature, goal orientation, and the actors and factors playing a role in enabling or constraining its development. Thinking in terms of AI LTS can help researchers to identify how control is distributed, coordination is achieved, and where decisions take place, or which levers actors (among which policy makers) can pull to relax constraints or steer the evolution of AI.
Simone Vannuccini is a Lecturer in the Economics of Innovation at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex Business School. At the University of Sussex, Dr Vannuccini co-convenes the Research Mobilisation Group on Artificial Intelligence, is the Deputy director of the Future of Work Hub, and the convenor of the SPRU Freeman Seminars. Dr Vannuccini is also an Associated Fellow of the Graduate College ‘The Economics of Innovative Change’, Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Germany) and has been Adjunct Professor of Economics of Innovation at the University of Insubria (Italy), where currently is a Faculty Board Member of the PhD Program in Methods and Models for Economic Decisions. He also collaborates with the Center for Studies on Federalism in Turin (Italy). Before joining SPRU in 2018, Dr Vannuccini has been working as Research Fellow (Post-doc) at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Germany), where he also obtained his PhD in a joint programme with the Max Planck Institute of Economics. Dr Vannuccini’s research focuses on microeconomics of innovation and more precisely on the ‘regular irregularities’ of technical change: in particular, he studied the nature of ‘general-purpose technologies’ and their impact on industrial dynamics. More recently, he is working on the economics of artificial intelligence and in particular on the current AI-driven trajectories in the semiconductor industry; further ongoing themes of interest are the general-purposeness of AI, the economics of digitalisation and the industrial organisation of multi-sided platforms, and the modelling of industry life-cycles.
Ekaterina Prytkova is a Doctoral candidate at the Department of Economics and Business Administration of the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Germany) and the Graduate College ‘The Economics of Innovative Change’. She is a recipient of the Landegraduietertstipendium, a State scholarship supporting excellence research projects, and has been the Programme Coordinator for the Double Degree MSc in Economics between the Universities of Jena and Insubria (Italy). From September to December 2019, she has been Visiting Research Fellow at SPRU, University of Sussex Business School (UK). Ms Prytkova has been designing and teaching modules on Economics of Innovation, Introduction to the software R, and Productivity and Efficiency Analysis. Ms Prytkova’s research focuses on the Economics of Technological Change and Industrial Dynamics. In particular, she has been working on the nature and diffusion of ICTs, digital infrastructure, and artificial intelligence (AI). Her current work is dedicated to understanding the trajectories and scenarios for the semiconductor industry given the adoption of AI technologies and tracing patterns of technological reliance on evolving ICT cluster among industries using text mining techniques and network analysis.