Pithy essays on artificial intelligence.
Since the 1990s, cultural impresario Brockman (This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know, 2018, etc.) has regularly asked prominent thinkers to address important issues. Since he is also the founder and publisher of edge.org and one of the nation’s leading science literary agents, they are not inclined to refuse, so the result has been a long series of collections of thoughtful discourses on a single theme. At roughly seven to 15 pages apiece, these are not the usual Brockman tidbits but weighty disquisitions, most of which examine an aspect of AI that has received attention from numerous editors, including Brockman himself. Most contributors nod respectfully to Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), whose seminal 1950 book, The Human Use of Human Beings, announced that vastly advanced technology was imminent and essential for human welfare and that its major risk was that powerful men might use it as a tool of oppression. Writing before the digital revolution, he failed to predict that the technology itself (AI), not malevolent humans, might be the primary preoccupation. Max Tegmark, Frank Wilczek, and Stuart Russell worry that a superintelligent machine will share one of the primary goals of humans—self-preservation—disable its “off” switch, and look after its own interests. Optimists like Steven Pinker or David Deutsch emphasize that spectacular advances in computer power are the result of, as Pinker writes, “brute force power of faster chips and Bigger Data….Each system is an idiot savant, with little ability to leap to problems it was not set up to solve and a brittle mastery of those it was.” Other contributors include George Dyson, Alison Gopnik, and Daniel Dennett.
The question “will AI be beneficent or disastrous?” is approaching the status of a dead horse, but that hasn’t prevented observers from whacking away at it. Readers who want to join the fun will not find a better introduction than this book.