Each month, the Columbia Public Library offers selections from its collection related to a current best-seller or hot topic. Public Services Librarian Anne Girouard compiled this month’s selections.
“Machine intelligence is the last invention that humanity will ever need to make.” — Nick Bostrom
As a child, I would watch reruns of "The Jetsons" and dream about the days when my car would fly and a robot would clean my house.
It’s difficult to believe, but that future of which I dreamed is here. And although there is a lot we still can’t do (flying cars, I’m looking at you), technology is running more aspects of our lives each day. It’s also practically impossible to turn on the television, flip on the radio or check your social media feed without seeing mention of artificial intelligence (AI).
Fears abound that this technology might someday overpower the human race. Will AI be the end of us or will it put us on an exciting new path? Let’s take a look at a few recent titles that explore the topic.
Michael Wooldridge, a researcher from Oxford, has studied AI for a quarter of a century. In his book “A Brief History of Artificial Intelligence: What It Is, Where We Are, and Where We Are Going” (Flatiron Books, 2021) he explores 70 years of development in the field of AI. Wooldridge offers insight into why we might temper our optimism about some of the incredible feats we hope AI will one day accomplish. Instead, he highlights the exciting realities of how it might help in fields such as medicine, while also debunking some of the posited horror stories about how AI might destroy us.
“Artificial Intelligence: An Illustrated History, From Medieval Robots to Neural Networks” (Sterling, 2019) by Clifford Pickover offers a lighter overview of AI history in the style of a coffee-table book. As the title notes, this book is heavy on illustrations and it really does start from the beginning, including pages of information on Tic-tac-toe (a game long used to introduce AI and computer programming), Talos (a bronze automaton from Greek mythology) and the abacus (our first calculator).
Although AI tends to tap into our anxieties, it can actually be quite funny as demonstrated by Janelle Shane’s hilarious book “You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place” (Little, Brown and Company, 2019). The general idea presented by the author is that AI is playing a much bigger role in our lives than we think, but it's also really not all that intelligent. From that central idea, Shane offers many examples of the funny, often surprisingly charming content that machines have created.
If you haven’t asked ChatGPT to write you a song or tell you a story yet, you should give it a try. Most likely you’ll come away with something pretty trite and cliched, and, if you’re lucky, a little hilarious. In “What Makes Us Human: An Artificial Intelligence Answers Life's Biggest Questions” (Sounds True, 2022) Iain S. Thomas and Jasmine Wang try to go a bit deeper and explore the essence of humanity through the lens of a generative AI. With the authors’ prompting, GPT-3 provides what seem to be creative reflections based on its accumulated knowledge of classic works on religion and philosophy such as the Bible, the Tao Te Ching, Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations,” Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and more.
AI may one day generate not just nonfiction, but great works of fiction as well. For now, it’s just the inspiration for some. “Several People Are Typing” (Doubleday, 2021) by Calvin Kasulke offers a strange, often humorous epistolary-style tale involving the technology we use to work from home. After PR firm employee Gerald’s consciousness is uploaded into his employer’s Slack (a cloud-based platform for businesses that uses instant messaging), he must figure out how to get out of Slack and back to his body. Meanwhile, Gerald's colleagues assume it’s a joke, and that he is just exploiting the company’s work-from-home policy. Gerald soon realizes his only hope of escaping his digital prison is Slackbot, Slack's AI assistant.
Carole Stivers’ book “The Mother Code” (Berkley, 2020) explores how a potential humanity might exist within AI and the connections humans might make with it. In 2060, genetically engineered children are raised by robot mothers after a deadly virus nearly caused humanity's extinction two decades earlier. The mother robots are run by the Mother Code, a program that contains the knowledge and motivations of mothers. They have the tendency to evolve as their children age in a way that is deemed problematic. The novel focuses on young Kai, who, as he comes of age, is faced with the forced destruction of his robot mother. He must decide whether to destroy his life’s companion or fight back for the only mother he has ever known.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Literary Links: These reads will make you booksmart about AI