Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, by James Barrat is one of the most intriguing books I have read to date. This book came as a recommendation from a podcast that I subscribe to, so I decided to give it a read. I do not normally pursue books of this nature, because it is honestly not a topic I heavily get into because I feel that it is a bit over my head. I am typically a girl who puts in an IT ticket for every single thing that goes aloof with my computer, so for me to read a book entirely about information technology required me to dig deep within myself. I am so pleased that I did. The topics that Barrat brings to the forefront of the conversation are concerning ones to say the least. We live in a time where precautionary principle is not exercised to a great degree in our world. We often act and ponder the consequences afterwards. Our world has idolized the “first mover” advantage in capitalism. Per the examples given in this book, we cannot afford to be lackadaisical about this topic, as a misstep in the wrong direction in terms of AI could potentially cause humanity to become extinct.
A Bit About the Author
For approximately twenty years, James Barrat has written and produced documentaries for various outlets such as National Geographic, Discovery and PBS. His works include topics such as Ancient Egypt, cave diving and so much more. Barrat began writing Our Final Invention in 2010 and it was published in 2013. He has been identified by TIME magazine as one of the “5 Very Smart People Who Think Artificial Intelligence Could Bring the Apocalypse” (3). He has been a keynote speaker on the topic at various conventions and various news outlets such as CNN and the BBC. “Barrat’s lifelong fascination with artificial intelligence came to a head when he interviewed inventor Ray Kurzweil, roboticist Rodney Brooks, and sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke. Kurzweil and Brooks were casually optimistic about a future they considered inevitable — a time when we will share the planet with intelligent machines. Clarke, on the other hand, was gloomy. ‘Intelligence will win out,’ Clarke told him. ‘We’ll lose the race with intelligent machines.’ Clarke’s pessimism planted a seed in Barrat’s mind that gave rise to Our Final Invention” (4).
This book adds a worthwhile contribution to society as a whole. If I am being honest, this book was a hard read for me. First and foremost, the toughest part of this book to digest is the severity of the subject matter. It is so much easier to take the “head in the sand” approach to life–you worry a lot less, you do not lay awake at night thinking about possible impending doom–ignorance is truly bliss. However, no matter how much I want to bury my head in the sand on this particular topic, I can’t. This is a subject matter that will affect all of us whether or not we choose to subscribe to the topic or not. Improper implementation of Artificial Intelligence could mean the end of our human race as we know it. We cannot afford to take the road of complacency on this talking point.
As I sat there reading, I began thinking to myself, “Wait a second! Did we not have a very popular movie in the 1980s about this topic? Does anyone not remember Skynet taking people out with their robot invaders? Did Sarah Connor not save us all once already, and then go on to save us five more times with a sixth on the way–after all, “I’ll be back!” Are we ever going to stop the madness?” This is not a new song and dance–this is the stuff that horror movies are made of, and we’re looking to create a real-life horror movie, as if we do not already live in one. Why can we not see our impending doom on the horizon with this? As if the 1980s flick wasn’t enough of a “stop, collaborate and listen” in 2004, we had I,Robot which visually displayed what a life shared with robots would look like. Thousands of rogue NS5’s went on a destruction spree of anything that was standing in V.I.K.I’s way. Nobody puts VIKI in a corner. It did not matter if it was human life–the NS5’s redefined their own definition of what was worth saving and what wasn’t. Who is to say that the very same scenario wouldn’t happen when we implement our own version of the NS5s? That’s just it–there are no guarantees! When talking about robots that could become four times as smart as human beings in just a matter of days, all bets are off in terms of their morality. It’s a machine–it doesn’t have morality, and for us to expect it to have our values is called anthropomorphism. The Webster definition of anthropomorphism is: “the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object” (5). Just because it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck and walks like a duck, does not necessarily mean it’s a duck!
The second reason that this book was a tough read for me, was due to the complexity of the subject matter. I have a lot of gifts and talents–I can firmly assert that technology is not one of them. I do what I can with the tools that I have, but there is no chance of me ever writing code for anything–ever. My brain is just not wired that way in order to understand it and implement it with excellence. I struggled my way through some of the terminology in this book. This book is not a hard read at all in terms of flow, but in terms of vernacular I just have a bit of schooling that I need to do for my own self. Barrat does do an excellent job at taking a complex topic and conveying it in a manner in which the general public would be able to understand to a fair degree. My favorite takeaways from this book are his conversations with Eleizer Yudkowsky. Yudkowsky is one of the top speakers to the perils of poorly executed Artificial Intelligence that is not programmed with a friendly nature. He is wise beyond his years. At just 39 years of age (currently), he has authored thesis’ that seem as if they would come from someone who was 200 years older than us. To me, he seems other worldly–as if he has information about the subject at hand that we would never have access to in our own little pea-brains. He does not want personal attention–he wants his message to be disseminated properly and executed flawlessly.
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.—Eliezer Yudkowsky
Finally, the third reason that this book was a tough read for me, is because I feel compelled to do something now. I do not know what I can do? This is not my wheelhouse. I do not know the first thing about supercomputers and the destruction of mankind. I know that it does not sound like a great idea. I know that there will be some stone left unturned that will likely lead to our demise or a very close one at that. I do not know what to do next? Do I take up lobbying against the cause? Do I write my senator? I have no idea. I do not believe that Barrat wrote this book as a doomsday novel. I believe that he wrote this book to compel the scientists, engineers, etc. of the world to consciously think about ALL of the implications that come with Artificial Intelligence–for us to not address every possible scenario with AI is cause for a future that is riddled with death and defeat. I do not want to die at the hands of a robot. I do not want my children to die at the hands of a robot. If this invention streamlines thousands of processes to almost perfection, but costs us our lives, it’s not worth it. We need to stop. We need to think. We need to analyze–is this really what is best for mankind? What is wrong with doing something the “old-fashioned way?” Why must a computer take on every element of our lives? Where is there shame in knowing how to build a chair from scratch by using a lathe. Why is there no pride in baking our own bread and and churning our own butter? You can’t tell me that robots taking on the mundane activities of life will leave all of this room for us to live our lives–that is just not so. We will still have to make money. We will still have to have means in order to live. We live in a greedy world–utopia cannot exist. So what these robots are going to do is take our jobs, take our livelihood and leave us with nothing, because that’s what greed does. I do not see a happy ending in regard to this formidable pursuit. I see death and destruction, downfall and demise, and unfortunately I believe we will only learn this after the damage has been done.
More than any other time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. —Woody Allen
To Recommend or To Not Recommend…that is the question!
RECOMMEND! Whether you want to or not, I believe that you must read this book. Our future depends on the discussion of these topics. Our very existence as we know it could cease to exist at the hands of poorly executed AI. Once you read this book, you cannot un-know the content. You will be burdened with the thought of a society that is ruled by robots, and potentially assassinated by robots. We need to be having educated, profound discussions on this. Someone will create AI–whether it be black budget or out in the open, the invention of the type of man-destructing AI will occur before this century comes to a close. We need to be prepared. We need to know what is happening. We need control over our final invention.