Friday, September 13, 2019

Book Review: 'The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity' by Byron Reese

‘Deconstructing the core beliefs that undergird the various views on robots, jobs, AI, and consciousness.’

Texas Entrepreneur/speaker/author Byron Reese is the CEO and Publisher of Gigaom, one of the world’s leading technology research companies, and regularly writes at Gigaom Publisher’s Corner. He brings his experience as a technologist, his passion for history, and his proven business acumen to illuminate how today’s technology can solve many of our biggest global challenges. According to Byron, “Technology is empowering. It augments us. And yet today, many are being told they should fear technology. In my writing, I reject that and offer a different narrative, of how technology can bring about a peaceful and prosperous world for all.” Byron’s other book is “Infinite Progress: How Technology and the Internet Will End Ignorance, Disease, Hunger, Poverty, and War.”

This book is not only timely: it is desperately needed as a resource to come to grips with where we find ourselves now and in the not too distant future. Many fear the invasion of privacy brought about by ‘social media’, fake news, government officials manipulating our minds into control of choices, the dangers of artificial intelligence, robotics in cars/medicine/commerce etc. It takes a mine such as Byron Reese to address this new age and assuage our anxiety – and prove that we are growing up! Or as Byron states in his Preface, ‘Robots. Jobs. Automation. Artificial intelligence. Conscious computers. Superintelligence. Abundance. A jobless future. “Useless” humans. The end of scarcity. Creative computers. Robot overlords. Unlimited wealth. The end of work. A permanent underclass. Some of these phrases and concepts probably show up in your news feed every day. Sometimes the narratives are positive, full of hope for the future. Other times they are fearful and dystopian. And this dichotomy is puzzling. The experts on these various topics, all intelligent and informed people, make predictions about the future that are not just a little different, but that are dramatically different and diametrically opposed to each other. So, why do Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates fear artificial intelligence (AI) and express concern that it may be a threat to humanity’s survival in the near future? And yet, why do an equally illustrious group, including Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Ng, and Pedro Domingos, find this viewpoint so farfetched as to be hardly even worth a rebuttal? Zuckerberg goes so far as to call people who peddle doomsday scenarios “pretty irresponsible,” while Andrew Ng, one of the greatest minds in AI alive today, says that such concerns are like worrying about “overpopulation on Mars.” After Elon Musk was quoted as saying “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization,” Pedro Domingos, a leading AI researcher and author, tweeted, “One word: Sigh.” Each group’s members are as confident in their position as they are scornful of the other side. With respect to robots and automation, the situation is the same. The experts couldn’t be further apart. Some say that all jobs will be lost to automation, or at the very least that we are about to enter a permanent Great Depression in which one part of the workforce will be unable to compete with robotic labor while the other part will live lavish lives of plenty with their high-tech futuristic jobs. Others roll their eyes at these concerns and point to automation’s long track record of raising workers’ productivity and wages, and speculate that a bigger problem will be a shortage of human laborers. While fistfights are uncommon between these groups, there is condescending invective aplenty. Finally, when considering the question of whether computers will become conscious and therefore alive, the experts disagree yet again….’

The synopsis of this book is reassuring – ‘As we approach a great turning point in history when technology is poised to redefine what it means to be human, The Fourth Age offers fascinating insight into AI, robotics, and their extraordinary implications for our species. In The Fourth Age, Byron Reese makes the case that technology has reshaped humanity just three times in history: - 100,000 years ago, we harnessed fire, which led to language. - 10,000 years ago, we developed agriculture, which led to cities and warfare. - 5,000 years ago, we invented the wheel and writing, which lead to the nation state. We are now on the doorstep of a fourth change brought about by two technologies: AI and robotics. The Fourth Age provides extraordinary background information on how we got to this point, and how—rather than what—we should think about the topics we’ll soon all be facing: machine consciousness, automation, employment, creative computers, radical life extension, artificial life, AI ethics, the future of warfare, superintelligence, and the implications of extreme prosperity. By asking questions like “Are you a machine?” and “Could a computer feel anything?”, Reese leads you through a discussion along the cutting edge in robotics and AI, and, provides a framework by which we can all understand, discuss, and act on the issues of the Fourth Age, and how they’ll transform humanity.’

A fine PR note should be helpful – ‘Our world up to recent times has been a Third Age world. While incredible innovation has occurred along the way, such as the development of steam and electric power and the invention of movable type, these were not fundamental changes in the nature of being human the way language, agriculture and writing were. With the exceptions of computers and robots, the innovations that we have observed have been evolutionary more than revolutionary. This is not to diminish them in the least. Printing changed the world profoundly, but it was simply a cheaper way to do something that we already could do. Detailed schematics of a biplane would have made sense to Da Vinci. But computers and robots are different. If we use them to outsource thought and motion, the very essence we are, then that is a real change, a Fourth Age.’

Read, digest, relax and grow into the Fourth Age with Byron Reese.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.