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A Fascinating Guidebook to the Future of Man and Machine

December 4, 2017

Review of Artificial Intelligence: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Jerry Kaplan (Oxford University Press, 2016), 192 pages, ISBN-13 978-0190602390, $14.28 on (pb).

Best-selling author and futurist Jerry Kaplan’s book Artificial Intelligence: What Everyone Needs to Know is an intriguing and essential guide to an awesome world inhabited by both men and machines.

The book’s primary message is one of realism. Artificial intelligence’s (AI) role in human society, Kaplan predicts, will not be that of a dystopian “robotocracy,” nor will AI usher in a utopian “singularity.” In between the extremes of robotic hell and a Rapture of the Nerds is a world where technological advances may take jobs performed by humans while creating and enabling new, equally fulfilling jobs and lifestyles.

Cooperators, Not Competitors

Instead of casting machines as our competitors, Kaplan writes, people should view intelligent machines as companions helping them do human tasks better.

 “Cars can ‘outrun’ us, ATMs can count bills faster than we can, cameras can see in the dark, but we don’t regard any of these as threatening our primacy,” Kaplan writes. “Computer programs can already play games, scan a crowd for familiar faces, and recommend movies as well or better than we can, yet few people are intimidated by these competencies. If or when robots can perform brain surgery, paint houses, cut hair, and help us find our lost keys, I expect we will see them as incredibly useful tools that can accomplish tasks that previously required native human intelligence, so the temptation to speak of them also as ‘smart’ will be difficult to resist.”

The Future of Law

Kaplan applies these futuristic concepts to more concrete questions. For example, he asks, who should be held responsible when an AI makes an incorrect decision requiring legal recourse: the AI or a human? 

Nonhuman entities such as corporations and other so-called legal fictions are already held responsible for their actions and decisions, Kaplan writes, so holding an AI legally responsible for its actions is not far-fetched.

“For example, what if your robot inadvertently pushes someone into the path of an oncoming bus, breaks an expensive vase at Tiffany’s, or pulls a fire alarm handle after mistaking a tableside cherries jubilee flambé for a flash fire?” Kaplan writes. “You may suddenly become a proponent of establishing a legal framework for assigning the blame to the autonomous agent itself.

“To consider this possibility, it’s helpful to note that we already hold some non-natural entities accountable for their actions: corporations,” Kaplan writes. “Indeed, they have considerable rights and responsibilities under the law as entities unto themselves.”

Artificial Intelligence, Real Rights

Kaplan demonstrates how legal responsibilities for AI could extend to the most important right of all: the right of self-determination.

Arguments for humans’ civil rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, and property, could apply equally to intelligent machines, Kaplan writes.

“You might think none of this matters, because somewhere ‘up the line,’ it must be owned and controlled by someone,” Kaplan writes. “But this is merely a conceit based on an assumption of human primacy. There are many ways that such an entity, if it has rights to own property, could arrange a way to become truly independent (in addition to being autonomous), including the logical possibility of simply owning itself.

“As a historical precedent, consider that before the U.S. Civil War, many slaves—who were legally property—earned their freedom by purchasing themselves,” Kaplan writes. “Many others were simply freed through an act of their owner’s generosity upon his or her death.”

Before reading this book, I’d never contemplated how an AI-enabled future would handle legal responsibility and civil rights for machines. After reading it, I found myself pondering these questions, demonstrating the mind-opening quality of Kaplan’s work.

The Future of Work

Kaplan’s book expertly addresses the fear of a labor shock, in which machines outcompete humans for jobs and put people out on the streets.

The idea of machines putting humans out of work is a common fear surrounding AI, and technological progress in general. Fortunately, millennia of human history suggest we will achieve a successful long-term transition, even if short-term problems arise, Kaplan writes.

“Obviously, technological improvements have raised productivity and increased economic output throughout human history, most notably during the Industrial Revolution,” Kaplan writes. “In plain language, this means that fewer people are needed to perform the same amount of work. But it’s equally true that historically, the increased wealth resulting from these improvements has created new jobs, though this effect is rarely immediate.”

AI does not invalidate the economic principles governing labor markets and capital, Kaplan writes.

“Nothing about AI changes the fundamentals of how labor markets evolve with technology,” Kaplan writes. “From an economic standpoint, AI technology is just another advance in automation. But its potential to rapidly encroach on current workers’ skills is unparalleled in the recent history of technological innovation, with the possible exception of the invention of the computer itself.”

Separating Myth from Reality

Throughout the book, Kaplan expertly separates science fact from science fiction, debunking many exaggerated claims about rampant superintelligences and domineering digital overlords.

Readers will delight, as I did, in the author’s ability to answer the questions about AI we all were wondering about but didn’t know whom to ask.  Kaplan’s book is a great roadmap for the future, educating readers about an increasingly relevant topic affecting the entire world.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. is the science director at The Heartland Institute.

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