Adding 'Thinking Machines' to Our AI Library

The 61 year history of our next big technology.

March 19, 2017

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence--and Where It's Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl

Published in March of 2017

In Thinking Machines, Luke Dormehi makes a convincing (and entertaining) case that advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are set to disrupt a wide range of industries. These advances go well self-driving cars and ever more sophisticated data-mining programs. Rather, AI is becoming integral in areas such as drug discovery and medical delivery, energy research and management, and robotics-based manufacturing. 

One need not be a Kurzwelian believer in the Singularity to think that advanced AI - and in particular Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) - will change (almost) everything. In fact, one of the reasons that Thinking Machines is so effective in making the case for the importance of advanced AI is that Dormehl is no techno-utopian. Thinking Machines contains a balanced discussion about the potential downsides of AI driven rapid advances in robotics and machine learning, including the potential for technologically driven unemployment.  

Dormehl recognizes that newly smart robots to replace many types of labor, but he makes the point that the history of new technologies replacing human workers has mostly been a positive social good. One need not look much further than the history of child labor - such as the chimney sweeps of Victorian era London - to celebrate the coming of power sweeping brushes and the replacement of coal and wood burners by gas and electric heating.  

Nowhere has technology replaced more workers than in agriculture. In the first half of the 19th century more than two-thirds of workers lived on farms. Mechanization and other technological advances now enable less than 1 percent of workers to grow crops in radically greater levels of abundance than two-centuries ago, yet these farm workers did not join the ranks of the long-term unemployed.  Rather, they migrated to cities and got jobs in the factories that the 19th and early 20th century industrial technologies enabled.  Over the long-run, workers displaced by AI driven technologies in the 21st century are likely to follow the same path as farm workers displaced by tractors, finding different (often better) things to do.

Thinking Machines offers an excellent history of the development of AI - starting with the 1956 summer workshop at Dartmouth College that gave birth to the field.  Progress in AI has not been linear, and Dormehi recounts the impact of the successive AI winters where over-enthusiasm and hype gave way skepticism, disillusion, and the erosion of research funding.  The combination of private research dollars (Google, Facebook, and Uber can afford to invest in lots experimentation), and the cumulative impact of Moore’s Law, have finally brought advanced AI applications within reach.  

Fans of books such as Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots, and The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future will find much that is original and of value in Thinking Machines.  

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