A Human Algorithm by Flynn Coleman

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Artificial Intelligence is almost upon us. Lots of people are using Siri on their phones or have an Alexa or Google home device to help them organise their busy lives. But as hand as these are, the next generation of AI is going to revolutionise the world in many different ways and cause us to ask many searching and profound questions about this technology in our lives. Will it be the end of humanity? Or can these technologies be used as a power for good?

It is thought that there are around 700 people working on AI in one form or another around the world and there are about another 70,000 software engineers who understand how it functions. The problem it this tiny subset of people who have in their hands something that has the possibility to dramatically affect up to 7 billion people around the world in good and bad ways. One of the issues that are affecting the development of AI is that there is almost no diversity of voices that are contributing to this technology. Black and Latino developers are conspicuous by their absence. For example, one conference had seven black attendees, only one of which was a woman. Therefore as it is developed by a very narrow clique, the majority who are white, male and have often attended one or two of the major universities, it is inherently very sexist, racist and biased

It is said that the first trillionaire in the world will be the person who makes AI a reality. Worryingly there are no global standards on AI systems, nor are there any moral guidelines to help structure some of the internal decision making. There are significant gaps between those building the technologies, those policing it and those who will be affected by it, It does seem to be more chasms than gaps though. AI automation will also lead to mass changes in employment at the lower level. This was beginning to happen before the COVID pandemic hit, extenuating the financial gulf between rich and poor is widening day by day.

One place that you will find AI starting to proliferate, is social media. It can be great, but it can be a next of vipers too, as well as an echo chamber and brings the worst out with tribalism and confirmation bias. Always remember, if you are not paying for a product or service then you are the product.

In amongst all the bad news though there are some positive effects of AI. It is being used to work on projects that promote sustainability and humanitarian use, drones can be used to deliver food and medicine to remote areas. Another scheme is using it to make incarceration more humane and allow better rehabilitation of prisoners. Another sphere that shows great promise in is healthcare. Doctors cannot know every single disease or illness out there, the ability of Ai to crunch data showed in a clinical trial that medical assistants using the tool were accurate 91% of the time, without having to use labs, medical imaging or even having sat exams. The software developed by IBM called Watson AI read 25 million medical papers in a week or so and could recommend treatments that it had found in obscure medical trials. There are even robots that have begun to communicate with each other in a language that we cannot understand.

The fundamental question that this book asks is, do we want AI to help us or become a monster? If we do this right then we gain a brilliant new partner, if we get it wrong it could be the advent of a new dark age and we all suffer. Is it just me that is thinking of the Matrix or Skynet? How will we as a global population react to AI and robots? If the paranoia about the new 5G mobile networks is anything to go by, it might not go that well.

Fiction is empathy technology (Steven Pinker)

Colman puts both sides of the argument for and against AI really well in this book. Whilst it has the potential to be a force for good, she is careful to detail the ways in that it could be an utter disaster. She explores all manner of subjects that are connected to AI, from the history behind it, the economy and even what is consciousness and can AI become conscious? It is written with clarity about a complicated subject. There is no moral machine without a moral human and the key behind getting a useful technology that works for all and not just a techno-rich elite, is empathy, that ability that humans have to feel what other people are feeling. Sadly it is an emotion that is sadly lacking in today’s world. It is essential to our survival to include it in AI. Highly recommended.

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2 Comments

  1. Liz Dexter

    This does sound fascinating, although I am not sure I could face it at the moment! I’m going to alert my husband to it, though.

    • Paul

      It is well researched and well written.

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