Saturday, November 30, 2013

Book Review: Our Final Invention

    I have found the true heir to H.P. Lovecraft, and it is documentary filmmaker turned herald of the AI apocalypse, James Barrat.  No, his book is not a tale of a tortured artist who learns too many of the secrets of the universe and is driven mad by it.  Or is it?  Whatever the case, he presents a vision of the world so soul searingly, existentially terrifying that it belongs on the shelf with the master of cosmic horror.  This is a sobering look at the very real, very possible ending to all of us, building right below our very noses, and under our typing fingertips.  For a pro-tech, futurist like myself, this book is a grim dark side for my usual upbeat visions of a world without want.

One of the less grim scenarios...

    Barrat looks into the building wave of artificial intelligence, the possibilities of human level (and more, superior to human) intelligence, and does not doubt that it’s on the way.  What he doubts, is that it will be a good thing.  I believe…well, I want to believe…that we’re moving in the right direction (overall), and that the future is bright.  I also have an instant mistrust of folks who preach fear of advancements and refuse to look on the bright side of technology.  I’ve also never much bought into the idea that superiority equals maliciousness, which is all part of the slave mentality that infects us as a species.  That said, I can’t find fault in Barrat’s argument.  He makes an excellent case for the terrifying dangers the creation of a human level (or higher) computer mind.  The profound alien nature of a computer mind is where the key trouble lies.  And this, is where I first connected Barrat with Lovecraft.  Both envision something so far beyond our ability to comprehend or control that we would stand no chance against it.  The concept I found most chilling is summed up in the quote from Eliezer Yudkowsky.  “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.”  It isn’t that Barrat believes a human or more level intelligence would want to kill us.  It’s that it won’t share our interests or values, and we might not be able to even understand what its interests or values are.  We may quickly find that we are little more than ants before its unknowing, uncaring feet.

    My hope is that we as a people can shift our thinking and action in the direction of safety.  I have hope.  I do.  But I have a profound worry, because I can’t pretend I don’t see the opposite every day.  With people steadfastly ignoring scientific findings all the time, from climate change to the benefits of genetically modified foods, and with so many willing to step over their mother for a chance at a few extra bucks, I have worries.  And thanks to this book, I find that I have a fear I never knew about.  I don’t want to die by incineration from the waste heat of trillions of nanobots assembling each other.  That may have just surpassed tidal wave on my list of things I most want to avoid getting killed by.

    This book should be read.  Futurists and optimists like myself need a dose of reasoned descent on occasion.  I think many of us become so inured to the fear mongering, backward looking anti-science of Hollywood movies and uninformed man-on-the-streets, that we build up a wall around our optimism.  This wall blocks our view of the very real threats that are out there.  With so many people crying wolf constantly, the real problems can easily be ignored.  And I think that James Barrat has produced a well thought out and sobering call to action.  He doesn’t preach a halt to progress or a return to ‘simpler times.’  He suggests a safe and cautious handling of a potentially cataclysmic technology that would make the atom bomb seem like kids play.  He’s not talking about a danger to a city or a country.  He’s not even talking about danger to our planet.  The kind of scenarios Barrat suggests are existence erasing, galaxy polluting disasters.  I do believe that our future will be tied with artificial intelligence, and that future could be amazing on a level beyond the wildest science fiction stories.  But the danger must be understood, and we must protect ourselves and our future.

Our Final Invention
Author: James Barrat
Publisher: Thomas Dunn Books
ISBN: 978-0-312-62237-4

-Matthew J. Constantine

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