With This Idea Must Die (2015) barely off the presses, Brockman, editor of the online science salon Edge.org, asked the world’s intellectuals for another opinion. They deliver in the latest of the editor’s thick compendiums.
Occasionally turgid academic prose rarely mars the nearly 200 lively essays (few of which go beyond five pages) on the future of artificial intelligence. Every contributor—scholars, philosophers, artists, scientists, and journalists, including stars such as Freeman Dyson, Stephen Pinker, Brian Eno, and Daniel Dennett—knows that humans can already make a thinking machine in less than a year. Since the process obeys the laws of nature, a thinking computer is possible and, therefore, inevitable. Some observers—but none in this book—predict that Armageddon will follow. Computers only compute. They have no aspirations, and they won’t consider eternal questions or their own self-interests unless programmers design them to do so. Most believe that as computers grow smarter, so will humans. That they will enslave us is less likely than that we will internalize their functions. This is already happening—e.g., if we forget our cellphones or the Internet is down, we feel bereft. The oldest contributor, Dyson, grumbles that AI is a trendy subject that receives more attention than it deserves. He points out (and few contributors disagree) that true thinking machines will not appear in the foreseeable future. “If I am wrong, as I often am, any thoughts I might have on the question are irrelevant,” he writes. “If I am right, then the whole question is irrelevant.” Other contributors include Mario Livio, Sean Carroll, Douglas Coupland, Nicholas Carr, Nina Jablonski, and Maria Popova.
A satisfying experience for readers looking for thoughtful answers to big questions.