Computer mouse on fire

Book review: ‘The New Fire’ by Ben Buchanan and Andrew Imbrie

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Two senior figures from the US government look at war, peace and democracy in the age of artificial intelligence.

Dissatisfied with the widespread cliché comparing the importance and potential ubiquity of artificial intelligence with electricity, Ben Buchanan and Andrew Imbrie have set out to find a better metaphor. The problem with the electricity analogy, they contend, is that after a couple of centuries working out what it is and what it does, we’ve harnessed it in such a way that it has become a potent force for universal good, safely and cheaply working its magic behind the scenes to deliver our modern world on demand and in a reliable way.

The same can’t be said for artificial intelligence, say the pair, who having completed ‘The New Fire: War, Peace, and Democracy in the Age of AI’ (The MIT Press, $29.95, ISBN 0262046541) now hold senior posts in the United States government: Buchanan as assistant director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Imbrie in the State Department.

These brief CV references are served up to acknowledge their authority about where AI might be going in the reality of today’s geopolitics. ‘The New Fire’ isn’t a piece of sci-fi conjecture by a couple of enterprising newspaper hacks. In their investigation, Buchanan and Imbrie argue that emerging technologies such as AI will fan the flames of “a new kind of war, one that holds democracy in the balance”. Their analysis could hardly have come at a better time.

And it’s risky business because, as our authors say, "we have not come close to mastering AI as we mastered electricity". And just as fire can run out of control from the most innocuous of starts, so too, they argue, could AI. This is because there are three primary sources that could set everything ablaze: data, algorithms and computing power. “Today’s AI systems use computing power to execute algorithms that instruct machines how to learn from data.” And while this mission statement for AI is creating a positive outlook for facial-recognition systems, language translation, computer gaming and other mostly benign social levers, there is also the potential for AI to be applied to negative contexts.

While AI evangelists see the development as unlocking a new standard of life, there are inevitably the AI warriors who will seek to deploy it as a means of gaining territorial and geopolitical advantage. Then there are the doom-mongers who believe that we’ve arrived too late to apply the foresight of ethical constraints, and that it is already streets ahead in the hands of terrorists.

These divergent assumptions are what comprise the core of the discussion in ‘The New Fire’, an intelligent analysis based on the extended metaphor of AI being one of the most significant discoveries since fire. Unlike fire, AI will be part of the geopolitical landscape, and we will have to decide if it will bring warmth and light, or reduce everything to ashes.

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