“I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords” wrote Ken Jennings after his defeat at the hands of IBM’s Watson on Jeopardy. The computer, with a display of swirling dots around an orb, certainly didn’t register the pseudo oath of fealty, but for many the defeat was a public display of artificial intelligence’s (AI’s) real arrival.
While certainly not the first display of AI on the public stage. Countless movies, not the least of which was the Terminator series, discussed the promise and peril of AI. But until jeopardy, it seemed to be in the realm of science (or speculative) fiction.
Today AI is part of our everyday lives, whether most people realize it or not. On one end of the spectrum, AI is almost routine—search of a flight on Kayak? That’s AI. Use Siri, Alexa, or Cortana? That’s AI. Use Google to find that song lyric? That’s AI too. And these are just the obvious examples. AI is likely in use by your doctor, helping to diagnose and identify cancers more accurately. Your lawyer may well use an AI paralegal, finding precedents and evidence in discovery faster than that new hire.
At the other end of the spectrum you find luminaries such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and others warning of the perils of AI. They warn that it poses a greater threat than North Korea or anything we as a species have yet encountered.
But what is AI, what are its capabilities, and where will it take us (willingly or unwillingly)? Attempting to answer this question is Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Max Tegmark in his new entry, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Tegmark attempts to distill AI into a consumable form for the layperson from the ground up.
Endorsed by Elon Musk, no less, Life 3.0 is an outstanding book that balances the highly technical computer science lexicon with real world questions about AI and the consequences for humanity if we do achieve artificial superintelligence. He debunks the myths of AI, especially skewering the aforementioned Terminator series (while fun and enjoyable, is about the least likely of scenarios according to Tegmark).
In attempting to answer these questions, Tegmark is successful. His prose and style communicates a near infectious level of excitement and enthusiasm about the subject. While he does wax and wane from the super technical to the whimsically simple, on balance it works well. There is very little that Tegmark doesn’t cover in Life 3.0—from the foundational discussion on computation to the possibilities of an intelligence explosion, and from possible outcomes to consciousness and goals.
Perhaps the one outlier is his detour into the “cosmic entitlement” and the future of humanity (or its successor) in the cosmos. For me, it was thoroughly enjoyable, but others may find themselves scratching their heads at ins and outs of harvesting energy from black holes.
Where Tegmark is perhaps weakest is in his analysis of the near-term implications of AI. How will AI affect people today and tomorrow? What will the jobs of the future look like? What will happen to those displaced by autonomous cars, robotic chefs, and Roombas on steroids? How will those communities where jobs are eliminated cope?
The tech community is woefully silent on this subject. They seem, best illustrated in Mark Zuckerberg’s commencement address to Harvard, to shrug their shoulders and say “it will all work itself out in the long run.”
For Washington’s part, they too are frighteningly quiet about the subject. President Barack Obama released several reports on AI and its implications, but outside the wonkier wonks (myself included) the reports weren’t widely read. AI does not appear to be a priority or a focus of the current administration, a situation that is unlikely to change in the near term. Why? For one it is a function of a near existential change meeting the short-term election cycle. Two and four year elections don’t mesh well with changes that are logarithmic in nature.
To his credit Tegmark wants to start a dialogue on AI and established a website alongside the book in an attempt to elicit thoughts and comments from the reader.
Whether or not Tegmark is successful in starting the dialogue remains to be seen, but his contribution to the debate is most welcome as is his excellent book.