The essays in this book make for an interesting variety of views about the future of artificial intelligence. Some are concerned about the impact of AI on our society, some quite sanguine; some skeptical about the ability of AI to reach "singularity" levels of intelligence, others arguing for AIs' civil rights. The relatively short length of each chapter means that one doesn't feel trapped in anyone's maddening world view for too long, though the closing, nihilistic contribution by Stephen Wolfram does drag on a bit. Often the interviews with people outside or on the fringes of the AI academic-industrial complex were most interesting, in particular a couple of lucid essays by artists.
For me the two stand-outs were by Jaan Tallinn, one of the creators of Skype, and Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist. Tallinn draws a powerful parallel between the slow acknowledgment of the serious risks of AI and the slow spread, in his native Estonia, of the realization that the Soviet occupation was illegitimate. Gopnik, who studies babies, offers the best explanation I've encountered of the difference between the "deep learning" connectionist implementation of AI and the Bayesian, graphical model implementation; the rest of her piece is quite interesting, too. An honorable mention to the piece by Daniel Dennett, whose contribution seems reasonable, a sign he may be mellowing as he ages.
The main drawbacks to the collection are (i) the underrepresentation of women, who contribute only 3 out of 25 pieces, and (ii) the intrusive presence of the editor, who is the opposite of self-effacing. Nonetheless, I plan to assign all or a large sampling of the book the next time I teach my college course on the social impact of robots and AI: there's plenty of food for discussion.
One last reflection, though: it so happened that a couple of hours after I finished reading this book, I saw the wonderful and very low-volume science fiction film "Arrival" (2016) on cable TV. In the film, a linguist (played by Amy Adams) figures out a way to communicate with a pair of cephalopod-like aliens who have visited Earth in a space vehicle with mind-boggling technology. In her last, and very poignant, conversation on their vessel, only one is present; it explains that the absent one is "undergoing the death process."
While reading the present book, it struck me that so much of AI enthusiasts' enthusiasm for uploading human minds and other ways of (purportedly) achieving immortality comes from a fear of death. I felt the movie deepened the context for this in two ways. First, the self-perpetuating cyborgs exalted by strong AI fans could wind up being rather puny, relatively speaking: a sort of steampunk dream based on 21st-Century ideas about computing, something like conquering the Galaxy with autonomous coal-powered space probes. Second, and more important, the very fact of mortality may give us more kinship, and more to share with, beings from elsewhere. And that makes them much more interesting than immortal AIs could possibly be.
- Hardcover: 293 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Pr (19 February 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0525557997
- ISBN-13: 978-0525557999
- Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 2.6 x 24.2 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 544 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,160 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)