Ben Cope Insights Uncategorised

‘The Age of AI’ and slouching towards superintelligence – Eterna’s Book Club 

Not for the first time, Kissinger fails the Turing Test.

Fire, the wheel, the compass, the printing press, the steam engine, electricity and the internet. Some inventions alter the course of human history.  

Could artificial intelligence (AI) be next? Since the launch of ChatGPT in November, the buzz has gone mainstream, exciting and terrifying in equal measure. It’s the impassioned context of the current debate that makes reading The Age of AI a little odd. For all its merits – of which there are many – it’s a cold-hearted book. You don’t get the impression that the authors feel an emotional response to the technology that’s about to turn the world upside down.  

Published in 2021, the book impressively predicts many contemporary AI debates. What really is AI, and what isn’t it? Is what AI tells us correct? Can we create an ethical AI? How can nations develop national ‘AI plans’? And how should we collaborate on AI regulation? Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and computer scientist Daniel Huttenlocher bring a technological perspective, while Henry Kissinger adds a geopolitical dimension.  

What answers to these questions do they provide, you probably would like to know. I wish I could tell you. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make do with sentences like “various individuals, corporations, political parties, civic organisations, and governments will inevitably have differing views on the proper operation and regulation of AI-enabled network platforms,” and “while these changes may create not only new efficiencies but also the need for new workers, those who experience dislocation, even if short-term, may derive little consolation from knowing that it is a temporary aspect of a transition that will increase a society’s overall quality of life and economic productivity.” Fair points, I guess. And probably impressive for when they were written. But now they read like a middle-of-the-road McKinsey report.  

For all its foresight, The Age of AI will leave you feeling strangely numb. It convincingly claims that AI could pose a very real threat to human life as we know it, raise difficult questions for regulators, and redefine human identity. But from reading the book, you’re left thinking that the authors don’t really care. The rallying cry in the book’s original conclusion calls for “understanding the transition”. Ironically, it reads like ChatGPT.  

This inhuman approach was particularly disturbing coming from Schmidt and Huttenlocher, both of whom have played pivotal roles in advancing the technology to where it is today. Schmidt, for example, was until recently in charge of Google’s AI research lab DeepMind. How are they indifferent to their own technology that could propel civilisation into a new epoch?  

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the book’s weakest section is on philosophy. The authors vaguely call for a new Kant for the AI era but admit they don’t know what that should look like. This could be the authors acknowledging their limitations, or perhaps a concerning hesitancy to emotionally engage with the future of their own creation.  

Not only does this apathy leave the reader with an uneasy disquiet, it limits the analysis. Visionaries and doomsters may not always be balanced, but in times of flux they ask useful, probing questions. Is ethically bounded AI realistic? Should everyone be allowed advanced AI? And how do we respond to the current AI hype cycle, with talent draining from the economy into this emergent sector? And the really big question: does Artificial General Intelligence pose an existential threat to humanity or could it usher in an unimaginable era of human flourishing? The authors’ lack of emotion and curiosity leaves them falling short.  

As communicators, we would have appreciated a discussion about information creation and dissemination. In the future, will AI be both writing press releases and generating news articles, effectively taking over both ends of the hack-flack relationship? And how will AI affect misinformation and disinformation on social media? For example, could AI-run accounts serve as autonomous advocates engaging in online debates 24/7?  

When we discussed this book, as whenever Eterna talks about AI, it was a passionate discussion. Why wouldn’t it be? Anyone can see the epoch-defining impact this technology could have – for both good and ill. I just wish the technologists leading us towards the Second Coming seemed a little more… human.