Digital human concept

Book review: ‘I, Human’, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Image credit: Dzmitry Ryzhykau/Dreamstime

Decisions about the direction in which humanity is heading shouldn’t be made on the basis of where artificial intelligence can take us.

Inserted between the author’s dedication and the table of contents, there’s an extra page in Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s ‘I, Human: AI, Automation, and the Quest to Reclaim What Makes Us Unique’ (Harvard Business Review, £19.99, ISBN 9781647820558). Floating in a mass of space are eleven words: “This book examines the impact of artificial intelligence on human behaviour.”

This may seem simple – an attempt perhaps to make sure reviewers have firmly implanted in their minds his overarching theme before they start launching into their value judgements. But in fact, they could well be the most important words within the covers of ‘yet another book on AI’. This is because ‘I, Human’ isn’t really about technology at all. It’s about the effect AI will have on us as individual members of a species.

We all know, says Chamorro-Premuzic, that living with AI has changed the way we do certain things. On the upside, we can now leave it to algorithms to sift through profiles on dating websites, tee-up our morning news feeds, predict our online grocery requirements for the week. On the downside, we know how AI in social media creates delusional perspectives about ourselves and the world we live in.

As we become more self-obsessed, entitled and attention-seeking, we blame the technology for that, just as we’ve blamed all novel media tools over the ages. Socrates thought writing would atrophy the memory. Buggles thought that video killed the radio star. Blaming innovation for our failings as humans is easy to do, says Chamorro-Premuzic, but you’ve got to question the value of the approach when anatomically modern humans have barely changed in the 300,000 years we’ve been around.

If we take a detached view of AI and see it for what it is – computer code designed to make human tasks more predictable – then we can start to understand objectively what this node on the tech evolution timeline means for us as people. Fundamentally, perhaps for the first time we are experiencing a significant social change unlike anything that’s happened before. This change is driven by three factors, says Chamorro-Premuzic: “A hyper-connected world, the datafication of you, and the lucrative business of prediction.” It is also turning humans into “boring” (his word) creatures, whose richness of experience is being diluted, whose innate intellectual and social curiosity is being satisfied by algorithms, whose ability to take decisions is being undermined by machines making them for us.

Which means there’s an imperative to become more human. Chamorro-Premuzic sounds a note of despair in his chapter ‘How to be Human’ when he concludes that “the aim of our existence these days is to increase the wisdom of machines”. While we humans spend more time staring into flickering screens the winner is AI itself, that gets to “experience humanity in all its dimensions”. Which is why the question of where we are heading should not be decided by “where AI can take us”. Fascinating, original and thought-provoking.

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