‘Machines of Loving Grace,’ by John Markoff
Technologists rarely question technology in public. Yet last fall Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, suggested we might need to regulate the development of artificial intelligence “just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.”
Surprisingly, Musk found support from some prominent technology leaders. Bill Gates said he didn’t “understand why some people are not concerned” about what he called “super intelligence.” Stephen Hawking claimed that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
Over the past decade or so, we have seen some impressive demonstrations of artificial intelligence, including Watson, IBM’s “Jeopardy” champion; Siri, Apple’s personal assistant; and Google’s self-driving car. We have also seen some clear evidence that smart technology is restructuring the industrial economy by doing certain kinds of work that require skill and judgment we traditionally associate with flesh and blood.
We may not need to follow Musk’s call for regulation, but we probably need to assess the state of artificial intelligence and robotics, a task that John Markoff describes as looking for “common ground between humans and robots” in “Machines of Loving Grace.”
The development and deployment of any technology is a complex process that involves a host of people with different interests, including researchers, engineers, regulators, bankers, business leaders and others. Markoff, a science and technology reporter for The New York Times, tries to find his common ground by focusing on the researchers who create the basic technology and how, he writes, they “have grappled with questions about the deepening relationship between human and machine.” Markoff concedes that designers and engineers are removed from the ultimate application of their work. They “grow uncomfortable when asked about the potential consequences of their inventions and frequently deflect questions with gallows humor.”
To help us understand these researchers, Markoff divides the field into two categories. The first consists of work that is trying to duplicate human behavior with computing systems: artificial intelligence. The second category, intelligence augmentation, consists of work that attempts to expand human abilities.
Markoff developed these two categories in “What the Dormouse Said,” his 2005 book on the influence of 1960s counterculture on technology and computing. In “Dormouse,” he laid the foundation for “Machines” by telling the stories of the pioneering artificial intelligence researcher John McCarthy and Doug Engelbart, the engineer who invented the computer mouse. In his new book, Markoff updates his narrative with recent stories of artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation, including the Google autonomous vehicle program, which began at Stanford University, and Apple’s Siri, which started as a project at S.R.I. International, formerly known as the Stanford Research Institute. Along the way, he retells the stories of McCarthy, Engelbart and others.
Markoff mentions “Dormouse” in his preface to “Machines,” writing that his research for the earlier book gave rise to a paradox that he wanted to explore in this new one: “The same technologies that extend the intellectual power of humans can displace them as well.” But “Machines of Loving Grace” often returns to ideas from the foundational years of computer science, and the repeated stories sometimes make this new book seem as if it’s looking backward rather than forward. As Markoff himself points out, the line between artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation is sometimes fuzzy, “with machines that will simultaneously augment and displace humans.” Artificial intelligence technology from self-driving vehicles can be used as intelligence augmentation to help a driver avoid dangerous situations. Similarly, devices that are intended to augment human performance can easily allow one person to do the work of two.
The book ends with a too brief treatment of the problem that may ultimately bring large numbers of robots into our homes and lives: the need to care for the aging members of the baby boom generation. We may need to deploy smart machines to augment failing skills or to expand the population of nurses and companions. Personal care is one of the most human of activities. A full discussion of this subject would involve not only interviews with researchers but also conversations with nurses, business people and regulators — only then might we be better equipped to determine whether a new machine can be made humane enough to care for us.
MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE
The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots
By John Markoff
Illustrated. 378 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.
Via: Google Alerts for AI