This has been a topic that I have been extremely interested in for some time. I am not sure when I become so fascinated with this idea, but reading scifi novels and watching any number of scifi movies perhaps perpetuated my fascination. But, AI, like it or not is something that one way or the other humanity will have to deal with. Perhaps not in the was seen in movies, but a form of AI I am sure will rear its head in the near future. I think I saw this book on Amazon somewhere and thought it sounded interesting, so I had to check it out. Plus I really wanted to read a nonfiction book about the subject to get some more in-depth knowledge on the topic.
James Barrat is mostly known for his documentaries for National Geographic. He has been a writer for them for some time and has worked on numerous documentaries. As far as I can tell this is his first book and his other body of work is very different from this book as well. I am not sure what made him write this book other than the obvious, but we will get into that in a second.
This book is one of the best I have read when it comes to discussing artificial intelligence. Well, honestly it is pretty much the only one I have read on the subject, but it is a good and mostly easy read. From the get go it is obvious that Barrat has an agenda and is trying to get a point across. I did not have a problem with this as for the most part he presented both sides of the argument. I enjoyed the way the book was written even though the writer was obviously leaning one way. Usually that bothers me and somewhat ruins the whole story to an extent, but when dealing in large part with the unknown it is really tough to say that one person is right or wrong.
I liked the fact that Barrat was able to interview and talk to so many individuals very close to the situation and or people that are right in the thick of it, most notably Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil has been at the forefront of the AI discussion and firmly believes that AI, when it gets here, will be the savior for humanity and bring about the utopia that we have all dreamed of. While that is a bit of an exaggeration it is not that far from the truth. Not too long ago I read his Age of Spiritual Machines and found it quite fascinating. Still I have to give Barrat credit as Kurtzweil is on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to this topic. How many times have you read a nonfiction book about a particular topic and during the book the author introduces and talks at length with the person that has the opposite opinion of the writer and the point of the book?
As I have said I think this is an extremely fascinating topic and this will not be the last book I read on the subject. During the reading I did learn a few things and come across a few new theories that I had not heard about before. Learning is fun! A few got that mouse really working on that wheel, round and round it goes! One was the idea that we need to create AI as soon and as fast as possible, the reason is that now things are not as interconnected as they will probably be in the future. So if there is some sort of AI disaster it could in theory be more easily contained. I think this mostly makes sense, but I think that even now if AI were to come online tomorrow it would be damn near impossible to completely destroy unless it was completely isolated, which it think would be incredible tough. But if it was as smart as Barrat claims it could be then there is no way we and our limited intelligence could truly isolate it. So while I see the point, and is certainly a valid one, I am not sure it is possible.
Another interesting point was the idea that AI may never get here or may never come to life in the way we have seen in movies and such. Instead of true AI there will be a melding of man and machine and that will be the next step in our evolution. This one sounds obvious, but again not in the sense you are thinking. The example used in the book was that if you have two people one just by themselves and the other with a smart phone and the ability to use a search engine and you ask them random questions, who do you think will answer the most questions correct? Undoubtedly the person with the phone. Again this is the melding of man and machine which we all know is already here, but what will be the next phase of this technology? That is the real question. Those are just a few of the fascinating ideas that are mentioned in the book.
I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book even though I did not jump on board with Barrat’s ideas. It is always good to read and understand someone’s point of view even it is different from yours. I will say that I think there is some validity to what he is saying, but I still have a hard time believing the death by AI scenario for humanity. I just cannot believe that a thing 1,000 times smarter than us will destroy us. It just does not make sense to me, but with that being said I think they will see us as a non-factor and non-significant, like we do to ants. We neither care one way or the other if they die, but at times they are in our way or we inadvertently destroy one of their colonies, and we certainly do not want them in our house, but for the most part ants and humans have a cordial relationship. I think that will be the human AI relationship should it come to pass. I also am a firm believer that they would simply leave the Earth, no questions asked, as there are certainly more exciting things out in the universe than on this lonely blue rock. But in the end who knows.
Lastly I feel that I have given Mr. Barrat more than fair review of his book. As always I ask the writers for an interview, which I was extremely excited as Barrat said yes he would do it. I asked him when I started reading as I maliciously read and took notes as I love this topic and wanted to really pick his brain about his thoughts. I sent him the questions I had, which were quite a few, but I made sure to note that he can answer how many he wanted, and not to feel obligated to answer them all. I sent him the questions impatiently waiting his response. Two weeks later I followed up to see how things were going and to see if he was finished or still working. I got this email back as a response:
JB – It’s a lot of questions that don’t reflect a thoughtful reading of my book. I’m wondering why I’d commit thoughtful time to relatively unschooled questions.
Needless I was just a little saddened by the response and felt the refusal along with the insult was a bit much. A simple “I don’t have time to answer these now something has come up,” would have sufficed, or simply saying “no” from the get go would have also been fine with me. Don’t say yes then refuse because you think the questions are not up to your caliber of thought or “unschooled.” As if Mr. Barrat is such an expert in the world of AI that my insignificant, silly, near idiotic questions are taking extremely valuable time away from whatever it is that he is doing. People that agree to something and don’t follow through, I think we can agree, ARE THE WORST! So I responded, I believe quite appropriately with the following:
SM – Wow, understood. So sorry to waste your extremely valuable time. Below is a question that I asked MT Anderson (national book award winner among many others) when I interviewed him.
SM – I have read other reviews of Feed where critics explain what the story means and how the writer uses certain literary devices and themes to get a point across. There are many famous novels that do this, Moby Dick and Animal Farm, are a few examples where the characters represent something other than their obvious representation. There is certainly a point behind Feed, one that you wrote into the story. How do you feel when a reader either perhaps does not get the point you were trying to make, or perhaps got something totally different out of the story? Is that frustrating as a writer?
MT Anderson – Not necessarily. Just as a pianist has to read a piano score and make the music his or her own, each reader creates their own version of a book as they read it.
Just an UN thoughtful and UNschooled point…
I just don’t get some people, especially those that seem to have gotten too big for their britches…