The Book ’Machines of Loving Grace'

What books would you add to our Year of the Robot reading list?

September 23, 2015

Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots by John Markoff. Published in August of 2015.

If 2013 was The Year of the MOOC, 2015 may just be The Year of the Robot.

Markoff’s remarkable Machines of Loving Grace is the latest, and one of the best, additions to the technology replacing human workers oeuvre. Some other worthy additions published in 2015 include, Humans Are Underrated by Geoff Colvin and The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford.  All of these books reference Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s brilliant 2014 The Second Machine Age, a book that I hope every college student is assigned in at least one course.

Markoff does two really great things in Machines of Loving Grace.

First, he tells the story of how we got to the driverless car, Siri, and the lights-out factory, through the people that brought these technologies to life. Too often, stories about technological change either stick to the “great person” narrative (the Steve Jobs arc being the best known), or swing the other way and make technological progress sound inevitable (examples include descriptions of Moore’s Law and all the disruptive innovation claptrap floating around).

What Markoff gets is that technology is created by the collective choices and the efforts of small groups of people, with all of these people working in specific economic, organizational, cultural contexts. Markoff seems to know everybody who is doing interesting things at the intersection of robotics, artificial intelligence, and programming. By going deeply into the accomplishments (and the failures) of the makers of technologies, we are able develop a more realistic understanding of where these technologies might take us in the future.

The second big theme in Machines of Loving Grace is the intellectual divide between the AI (artificial intelligence) and the IA (intelligence augmentation) communities. Where AI seeks to mimic, and ultimately supplant, human thinking - IA seeks to work alongside people as a helper.  A driverless car must use AI (or a computer program that grades papers or writes newspaper articles). IA technologies, conversely, are those that we use everyday to aid in our productivity (from Engelbart’s mouse to the phone, tablet or laptop that you are using to read these words).

There is a big divide in the roboticist community as to if the focus should be on developing AI or IA systems, and about which approach will ultimately most benefit the most people.

The AI/IA framing may be helpful in our thinking about learning technologies, as one part of our community is focusing on scale (which involves replacing educators), and the other on intensifying the educator/learner relationship.

Markoff does not provide predictions about just how jobless our future will be. Rather, Markoff helps us understand that the evolution of technologies are the result of specific ideologies, as well as enabling (or inhibiting) economic, cultural, and social factors.

Machines of Loving Grace deserves to read widely and discussed on my campus and on yours.

What books would you add to our Year of the Robot reading list?

What are you reading?


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