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Review

Book review: ‘Rule of the Robots’ by Martin Ford

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Is artificial intelligence about to transform everything about our lives?

For those of us yet to grasp the scale of the potential for artificial intelligence to permeate every aspect of our lives, futurologist Martin Ford offers the analogy of electricity. It’s a big claim, because here at the dawn of the digital revolution electricity is a ubiquitous general purpose technology that has matured to support the basic needs of virtually everyone on the planet. But the comparison has merit, says Ford in ‘Rule of the Robots: How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything’ (Hachette, £20, ISBN 9781529346015), if only because it offers insight into how much it’s going to change our lives.

It’s also a flawed idea, he admits, because while electricity is universally seen as an agent for good, the same cannot be said of the algorithms that inevitably have the power to invade our privacy, make our jobs redundant, throw us in prison, launch weapons against us and arm cyber-terrorists. Unlike electricity – that took centuries to become widespread – the infrastructure for AI is already built and so its rise will be meteoric. Unlike electricity, AI is not a general-purpose technology: wherever you are and no matter who supplies your electricity, it is fundamentally the same. With adaptive, disruptive technologies such as AI, a lot depends on who and where you are.

And yet the analogy is probably the best that we have, because it conveys penetration as well as scale. There is a compelling logic to Ford’s argument when he says: “viewing artificial intelligence as the new electricity offers a useful model for thinking how the technology will evolve and ultimately touch nearly every sphere of the economy, society and culture.” But even this aspect of the model is nuanced, in that while AI will help us make the breakthroughs that will better prepare us for the next pandemic, it will also exploit any associated economic recession by automating the non-manual labour market, while creating bigger wealth divisions, making those rich enough to have stock market investments even richer as share trading becomes AI-powered.

As Ford explicitly states, while AI may not be the unambiguous force for good that electricity is, the one set of ideas we can be sure of is that AI is here to stay, unpredictable and disruptive. Our job now, is to work out how to thrive both as individuals and society as a whole in a future of our own making.

While some predictors argue that the problem with the future is it never arrives on time, Ford is different in that he sees it as arriving sooner than we think. He says that we still tend to see AI as an innovation rather than a disruptive technology, “a powerful utility poised to deliver a transformation that will someday rival the impact of electricity”. ‘The Rule of the Robots’ is subtle and clever, a book that will challenge readers to reassess their position on AI.

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