Prophesies have a dreadful record, but they are also endlessly fascinating. Readers may balk now and then—Tegmark’s...

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LIFE 3.0

BEING HUMAN IN THE AGE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

The founder of the Future of Life Institute explores one of the most intriguing scientific frontiers, artificial general intelligence, and how humans can grow along with it.

Nowadays, computers read, learn, recognize faces, translate languages, and consult other computers. They don’t yet think, but the contingent of researchers who believe that they will never be smarter than humans is steadily shrinking. In this expert but often wildly speculative rumination, Tegmark (Physics/MIT; Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, 2014, etc.) joins the fierce debate on what will happen when AGI reaches human level and beyond. He dismisses tabloid scenarios of rampaging robots but warns, “we might create societies that flourish like never before…or a Kafkasque global surveillance state so powerful that it could never be toppled.” The author defines intelligence as the ability to accomplish complex goals. This sounds trivial until he points out that both brains and computers are able to do this. Since computers are improving faster than brains, superhuman AGI will happen, and a beneficial outcome is not guaranteed. Thus, autonomous, self-driving cars will save lives. Autonomous battlefield drones will save soldiers’ lives, but keeping them away from rogue nations, terrorists, and criminals will prove impossible. In the early chapters, Tegmark portrays near futures that range from Utopian to Orwellian. Later in the book, he delivers a vision of the far future: a universe filled with the products of superintelligence, with organic Homo sapiens a distant memory. Throughout, the author lays out his ideas in precisely detailed scenarios. Many read like science fiction; others, such as a fine chapter on the nature of consciousness, are simply good popular science.

Prophesies have a dreadful record, but they are also endlessly fascinating. Readers may balk now and then—Tegmark’s solutions to inevitable mass unemployment are a stretch—but most will find the narrative irresistible.

Pub Date: Aug. 29, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-101-94659-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2017

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A deftly argued case for a new kind of socialism that, while sure to inspire controversy, bears widespread discussion.

CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY

A massive investigation of economic history in the service of proposing a political order to overcome inequality.

Readers who like their political manifestoes in manageable sizes, à la Common Sense or The Communist Manifesto, may be overwhelmed by the latest from famed French economist Piketty (Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century: Inequality and Redistribution, 1901-1998, 2014, etc.), but it’s a significant work. The author interrogates the principal forms of economic organization over time, from slavery to “non-European trifunctional societies,” Chinese-style communism, and “hypercapitalist” orders, in order to examine relative levels of inequality and its evolution. Each system is founded on an ideology, and “every ideology, no matter how extreme it may seem in its defense of inequality, expresses a certain idea of social justice.” In the present era, at least in the U.S., that idea of social justice would seem to be only that the big ones eat the little ones, the principal justification being that the wealthiest people became rich because they are “the most enterprising, deserving, and useful.” In fact, as Piketty demonstrates, there’s more to inequality than the mere “size of the income gap.” Contrary to hypercapitalist ideology and its defenders, the playing field is not level, the market is not self-regulating, and access is not evenly distributed. Against this, Piketty arrives at a proposed system that, among other things, would redistribute wealth across societies by heavy taxation, especially of inheritances, to create a “participatory socialism” in which power is widely shared and trade across nations is truly free. The word “socialism,” he allows, is a kind of Pandora’s box that can scare people off—and, he further acknowledges, “the Russian and Czech oligarchs who buy athletic teams and newspapers may not be the most savory characters, but the Soviet system was a nightmare and had to go.” Yet so, too, writes the author, is a capitalism that rewards so few at the expense of so many.

A deftly argued case for a new kind of socialism that, while sure to inspire controversy, bears widespread discussion.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-674-98082-2

Page Count: 976

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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