A strong case for planning for the day when machines can outsmart us.



A leading computer scientist urges a “radically new direction” for artificial intelligence research to ensure that superhuman AI benefits humankind.

“The march towards superhuman intelligence is unstoppable, but success might be the undoing of the human race,” warns Russell (Computer Science and Engineering/Univ. of California), co-author of Artificial Intelligence (1995), a widely used textbook. In this authoritative trade debut, he examines the idea of human and machine intelligence, the problems involved in creating extremely intelligent machines, and the need to retain human control of them. Although more scientific breakthroughs are needed, he writes, AI will certainly be the dominant technology of the future. We must have a serious discussion of “the implications of introducing a second intelligent species onto Earth.” After all, “making something smarter than yourself could be a bad idea.” Examining the enormous potential of AI, from its evolving benefits (home robots for the elderly, tutoring for children) to its misuses (automated blackmail, autonomous weapons), Russell writes that AI researchers must refocus their work if humans are to remain in charge. Rather than developing machines that optimize fixed, known objectives—a driving idea of 20th-century technology—they must design systems that defer to human preferences and intentions. As the author writes, “they will ask humans questions or ask for permission when appropriate; they will do ‘trial runs’ to see if we like what they propose to do; they will accept correction when they do something wrong.” An accessible writer, Russell is addressing nonspecialist readers, and he largely succeeds, although some will find his detailed explications challenging. (Refreshingly, he appends the most technical text.) The author is strongly optimistic that increasingly powerful machines that achieve our objectives are feasible. There is still time to change course: If a team of AI’s leading experts, with unlimited resources, was charged today with creating “an integrated, human-level intelligent system by combining all our best ideas, the result would be failure.”

A strong case for planning for the day when machines can outsmart us.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-55861-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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