One of the great promises of technology is that it can do the work that humans find too boring or arduous.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, factory machines relieved us of repetitive manual labour and backbreaking farm work. In this century, artificial intelligence has taken care of a few more tasks – curating Spotify playlists, selecting the next YouTube video, vacuuming the floor and so on – but many more mind-numbing activities remain ripe for the picking. The experts promise us that someday, all of our least favourite chores – including complex cognitive ones, like interviewing job candidates or managing global supply chains – will be outsourced to machines.

But that day has not yet arrived. Or 
has it?

After finishing The Age of AI, a new book about artificial intelligence by Henry A. Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher, I found myself unmoved by the prospect of reviewing it. I’ve read dozens of books about A.I., and while the conceit of this one was intriguing – bringing together a 98-year-old diplomat, a former Google chief executive and an M.I.T. professor – the book itself was a fairly forgettable entry in the genre.

Then I got a bright idea. What if I could have an A.I. finish this review, and save myself the trouble?

So I fired up Sudowrite, an A.I. writing program I’ve been experimenting with recently. The app uses GPT-3, the cutting-edge A.I. system developed by the San Francisco-based OpenAI, which acts as a kind of turbocharged version of Gmail’s autocomplete feature. Provide a snippet of text, and GPT-3 will try to complete it, using everything it has learned from ingesting billions of examples of other people’s writing. It does this with the help of a supercomputer containing some 285,000 processors, and a multilayered neural network that ranks among the world’s most powerful A.I. engines. The authors of The Age of AI call GPT-3 one of several promising technologies that are producing a "revolution in human affairs."

I pasted the first several paragraphs of this review into Sudowrite, and asked the A.I. to finish. Here’s what it wrote:

"Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher’s The Age of AI is a bold new book on artificial intelligence that will become the go-to guide for anyone who wants to understand this transformative technology.

The authors have examined the full range of AI technologies – from computer vision systems to natural language processing – and written about them in a way that will appeal to both experts and laypeople.

One of the most inspiring aspects of this book is its scope. The authors delve deeply into the potential of AI in all areas of human enterprise. They describe the impact of AI on health care, economics, geopolitics, law, urban development, governance, journalism, the military and even the life sciences.

Kissinger, Schmidt and Huttenlocher are not afraid to explore the darkest side of AI, either. They are clear-eyed about the ways that AI could enable dictators to monitor their citizens and manipulate information to incite people to commit violence.

Although AI is already making our lives better in many ways, Kissinger, Schmidt and Huttenlocher caution that it will take us as a species many years to create a system as powerful as we deserve. They wisely suggest that we not lose sight of the values we want to instil in this new machine intelligence."

Thank you, GPT-3! Now, a few notes:

First, the A.I. wasn’t an unqualified success. It took Sudowrite a few tries. On the first attempt, it spit out a series of run-on sentences that hinted that GPT-3 had gotten stuck in some kind of odd, recursive loop. (It began: ‘The book which you are reading at the moment is a book on a nook, which is a book on a book, which is a book on a subject, which is a subject on a subject, which is a subject on a subject.’) A few tries later, it seemed to give up on the task of book reviewing altogether, and started merely listing the names of tech companies. (‘Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, Baidu, Tencent, Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, Twitter, Snap, Alibaba, WeChat, Slack.’)

But it warmed up quickly, and within a few minutes, the A.I. was coming up with impressively cogent paragraphs of analysis – some, frankly, better than what I could have generated on my own.

This speaks to one of the recurring themes of The Age of AI, which is that although today’s A.I. systems can be clunky and erratic at times, they are getting better fast, and will soon match or surpass human proficiency in a number of important tasks, solving problems in ways no human would have thought to solve them. At that point, the authors write, A.I. will ‘transform all realms of human experience.’

Second, while GPT-3 was correct about the scope of The Age of AI – with chapters on everything from social media algorithms to autonomous weapons – it failed to note that all of that broadness comes at a cost. The book feels cursory and shallow in places, and many of its recommendations are puzzlingly vague.

The Age of AI is a new book about artificial intelligence by Henry A. Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher
Supplied

In a chapter on the geopolitical risks posed by A.I., the authors conclude that ‘the nations of the world must make urgent decisions regarding what is compatible with concepts of inherent human dignity and moral agency.’ (OK, we’ll get right on that!) A brief section about TikTok – an app used by more than a billion people worldwide, whose ownership by a Chinese company raises legitimately fascinating questions about national sovereignty and free speech – ends with the throwaway observation that ‘more complex geopolitical and regulatory riddles await us in the near future.’ And when the authors do make specific recommendations – such as a proposal to restrict the use of A.I. in developing biological weapons – they fail to elaborate on how such an outcome might be achieved, or who might stand in its way.

Finally, GPT-3 didn’t address the biggest question about the book, which is why it exists at all. Kissinger, who was 66 years old when the World Wide Web was invented, is not a full-time A.I. practitioner, nor a particularly savvy parser of tech hype. (His last newsworthy foray into the tech world was when he sat on the board of Theranos, the doomed blood-testing start-up.) Schmidt, who spent a decade running Google, is these days preoccupied with trying to scare up military contracts for big tech companies. And while Huttenlocher, the dean of M.I.T.’s Schwarzman College of Computing, may be a bona fide subject matter expert, it’s not clear how much of the book he actually wrote.

That said, the book does get some things right. The authors do a commendable job of avoiding what I call ‘A.I. fatalism’ – the belief, sadly common in tech circles, that A.I. is part of an inevitable future whose course we are powerless to change. Instead, they write that "humans still control" A.I., and have the opportunity to "shape it with our values." They also point out, correctly, that while many people worry about killer robots who achieve human-level sentience and mow us all down with Uzis, a much bigger near-term danger lurks in the innocuous-seeming A.I.s we all use every day, from the feed-ranking algorithms of social media apps to the automated dispatch systems that power Uber and Lyft.

"Without significant fanfare – or even visibility – we are integrating nonhuman intelligence into the basic fabric of human activity," they write.

Still, while it could be a useful summary of A.I. for those just starting to learn about the topic, The Age of AI does not advance the ball much. It’s a shame, given how much access the authors presumably had to a who’s who of the A.I. elite. And it makes me wish that

Actually, you know what? It’s sunny outside, my dogs need a walk, and I don’t really feel like finishing this review. Take it away, GPT-3.

"It makes me wish that someone out there would crank out a comprehensive survey text on AI, one that’s laser-focused on the technical issues, written by industry mavens who are actually doing this stuff day in and day out, and is written in an engaging, clear, plain-spoken style."

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Daily Telegraph

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