If a human baby, in its first year of life, became the world Chess or Go champion, pandemonium would erupt. Theories would include demonic possession, an alien visitation, or a genetic engineering experiment let loose on the world. That baby did exist however: its name was AlphaGo, and the proud parents at Google trained it in 2016 through ‘reinforcement learning’ and 1.5 million iterations of ‘self-play’.
It’s this relationship between the human and machine mind that is at the centre of Stuart Russell’s Human Compatible. Russell knows that many of us don’t really understand the cognitive framework behind algorithms. To explain, he holds up a mirror to the human brain to demonstrate what algorithms are being programmed to do.
From the advent of 5G technology and the launch of ‘The Internet of Things’, to ‘smart homes’ and huge improvements in personal assistants such as Siri and Alexa, Russell is excellent at examining the trajectory of the AI revolution and the future it may carve. As an AI pioneer he always asks: ‘What if we actually succeed?’
To him, AI systems have the ability to hasten economic development and profoundly enrich our living and education standards. As a result, he believes we are obliged to pursue AI research. Yet, the opportunity for malfeasance lurks in the shadows: surveillance strategies (think US elections), lethal autonomous weapons (these already exist), or the usurping of human roles by engineered humanoids (just Google ‘China’s Jia Jia’) are emerging threats. Automation will increase the share of income going to capital, and decrease the share going to labour. Many could be left idle as a result. Without a planned transition for at-risk jobs, humanity could face a dislocation, where basic happiness in the absence of work and fulfillment becomes harder to achieve. The rise of the machine, as Russell fascinatingly argues, should be paired with an investigation into the very essence of being human.
An innovation so great that it poses a genuine existential risk to humanity requires thorough debate and understanding. We were very nearly too late with nuclear weapons (for some we were too late), arguably fossil fuels too. Human Compatible offers an accessible guidebook as we hit the crossroads of another of humanity’s dubious wonders.