Although I’m sure there’s a lot of people who are fascinated by the many nuances of the field of Artificial Intelligence – the myriad applications of this new technology, the ethical issues, the many ways in which AI has already begun infiltrating our lives in subtle ways – I think I’m not wrong when I say that most people will pick up this book with one simple question on their minds: viz., what is the likelihood that we will be wiped out by evil killer robots within the next ten to fifty years; and, if we are, will they at least be sexy killer robots à la Battlestar Galactica, or will they be more like Arnie in Terminator (i.e., terrifying)?
This book does discuss the possibility of killer robots, of course. Its conclusions on the topic will not leave the technologically paranoid quaking in their boots, but the more sensitive reader may nevertheless finish this book with a slight sense of diffuse dread, because Walsh makes clear that even though robots probably won’t want to kill us out of hatred or spite (yay), they might do it… well, accidentally (erm… yikes?). In the sense that their programming may simply dictate that killing humans is the logical thing to do. Or we may simply be in the way when a robot begins trying to fulfill the function it was programmed to do (Walsh uses the classic example of a robot programmed to make paperclips, who promptly destroys the entire Earth converting every available resource into materials that can be used to make more paperclips. Which is great news for paperclip salesmen, although their market will probably be severely diminished on account of the robot having killed everybody, so maybe it’s not such great news, on the whole).
So this book does tackle the big questions. But it also outlines a whole host of AI applications that are incredibly interesting, as well as outlining the ways in which AI has already begun to be implemented in our towns and cities – there’s a significant discussion of self-driving cars, for instance, which I had no idea were being tested to such an extent.
This book is definitely layman-friendly. There are a few daunting formulae thrown in, but it’s easy to read and gives a really good overview of the history of AI. Walsh steers clear of making too many concrete predictions, but he does give indications of the directions in which AI research may be going. One of the things that I would have been very interested to read about would be the ethical issues, but although he touches on this, there’s not a huge discussion, mostly because Walsh is more interested in the issue of whether we will actually ever get to the point where our technology might develop consciousness and self-awareness.
His biggest argument, however, is that we are hurtling towards the future faster than our laws and social norms can catch up. Walsh’s argument that AI may arrive before we, as a society, are politically, legally, and culturally prepared for it is perhaps more worrying that the vague possibility that our creations might one day turn on us and convert us into office stationery. As a result of this preoccupation, this book, despite outlining the possibilities of a technology that has not yet been fully developed, is very much a book for the present.
Rating: 4.5 Stars