Human Compatible — Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control by Stuart Russell (Nonfiction)

An extremely well-written, comprehensive overview of Artificial Intelligence (AI) — with a focus on the very real risks it poses to the continued viability of the human race and a proposal for how to move forward reaping the benefits of AI without making us “seriously unhappy.”

AI Pioneer Stuart Russell is a Professor of Computer Science at UC Berkeley, has numerous awards, fellowships, chairmanships, etc. and has co-authored a textbook on AI with Peter Norvig. This is a book written by that rare creature — someone who knows his subject thoroughly and can explain it. He does not shy away from the complexity of the topic but breaks it down and explains it, simply making it accessible to anyone who is willing to read and think. He includes short, clear examples from science, philosophy, history, and even science fiction and references current and historical work from academia, research labs, and startups from around the world.

The book is divided into three parts: the concept and definition of intelligence in humans and machines; a set of problems around the control of machines with superhuman intelligence; and a proposal for shifting our approach to AI to prevent these problems from occurring rather than trying to “stuff the genie back into the bottle” once it is too late.

Russell explains the potential problems of unleashing a massively intelligent machine on the world. An AI machine offers incredible scale. Think of an entity that (with the proper sensors) can see the entire physical world at once, that can listen and process all concurrent conversations at once, that can absorb all the documented history of the planet in a single hour. And we plan to control this entity via programming. With a superhuman intelligence, the programming would need to be at the objective level. And yet — specifications — even with every day human programmers — are incredibly hard to get right. Russell uses the example of giving the machine the task to counter the rapid acidification of the oceans resulting from higher carbon dioxide levels. The machine does this in record time, unfortunately depleting the atmosphere of oxygen in the process (and we all die). Remember the old stories about getting three wishes and always screwing it up? This would make those stories look trivial. Russell never uses scare tactics and does not wildly overstate the thesis — instead he uses practical examples and includes one tremendously simple chapter (the not-so-great debate) that lists every argument people have made that we don’t have to worry and rebuts them quickly.

His solution: we should design machines correctly now so we don’t have to try to control them later. He wants to build a “provably beneficial machine” — provably in the mathematical sense. His machine would operate on only three principles: the machine’s only objective is to maximize realization of human preferences; the machine is initially uncertain as to what these preferences are; and the ultimate source of information on human preferences is human behavior. This is interesting — he wants to “steer away from the driving idea of 20th century technology that optimize a given objective” and instead “develop an AI system that defers to humans and gradually align themselves to user preferences and intentions.” There follows an entire chapter devoted to how we can program the machines to determine what those human preferences are, particularly in light of competing preferences, potentially evil preferences, the cognitive limitations of humans to understand their own preferences, behavioral economics, the nature of mind, definitions of altruism — you name it — all the fascinating areas of understanding human behavior become part of the problem. Which, while completely fascinating, strikes me as even more difficult than trying to work out how to define exact specifications in the first place!

I was left with a knot in my gut about how fast AI is moving without much oversight and how suddenly relevant these issues (that I had long relegated to comfortable musings in science fiction) have become. While I find his proposed solution intriguing, it is hard, hard, hard — and expecting random investors and startups to tackle harder design problems instead of racing towards monetization will be tricky. On the other hand, we move forward as a civilization by raising the issues and embedding them in our moral consciousness and Russell has done an excellent job of clearly teeing up a huge number of costs, benefits, and issues from technical to ethical. Highly recommended if you have any interest in the topic.

(SF) Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group — Ace through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on April 16, 2019.
Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Elite gamer Dee Whittaker is 43 years old when she finds herself on a ship headed to the outer galaxies on a 20 year trip. She and the other 10,000 people on board are probably all that’s left of humanity as a nuclear war was launched by someone on the ship as a parting gift. Now she has just one mission left — find out who launched that strike. She gets help from an unexpected place…

The novel is for gamers — most of the action transpires under the guise of mysterious games she plays on board at the invitation of “a friend.” The games are very personalized — too personalized. She finds herself in game situations that are far too close to her own traumatic past. Our first-person narrative heroine has some real trust issues — her line: “I smirk at the way life always finds a way to remind me that I am fucked” says it all. As we play the games with her and are treated to scenes from her past, we come to understand this sentiment.

Triggered by these unwelcome reminders of where she came from, she works towards her goal of identification and retribution while simultaneously and studiously *not* dealing with the emotional detritus of her experiences. The ending is a big surprise (at least I didn’t see it coming) and there are some interesting themes of sentience vs programming for both AIs and human beings.

From a literary perspective, this is a good book. Great pacing, a Heinlein-style straightforward writing style and story elements that remind me of Wool, Neuromancer, and Diamond Age. From a “mood enhancing” perspective, it’s pretty sucky. The author makes no bones about writing “dark” fiction, and this book is plenty dark. There is more negative stereotyping than I like — Americans are all tarred with the religious nut brush: “To be American is to be openly, passionately, religious” and “What exactly do they mean by the American way of life? Hypocrisy? Lack of respect for anyone or anything that refuses to adopt its culture? Institutional racism and misogyny? Which Christian values exactly? What sort of religious observance?” To be fair, I realized that if the “bad guys” had been Muslim fanatics I probably wouldn’t have noticed so that was an eye-opener for me.

Bottom line — a fast, engaging read. Mostly action with threads of exploration of sentience, morality and ethics, and self-exploration.