Business Management

Review: What an untrammelled AI world might bring

Many books about technology either herald the glory of coming trends or warn against their dangers. Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply is a curious hybrid: a work that narrates past, present and likely future developments in Artificial Intelligence, but also acts as a warning against the technology’s potential effects on society if we let our algorithms, code and bots (and their human owners) run free. Just as interesting, coming from an author who is also a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, is a parallel track that runs through the book and is a study of how the technology boom has created a new class of the super-wealthy, at liberty to do pretty well what they like.

Kaplan knows of what he writes. As well as having run startups himself, in universities he has studied and taught AI and the possible impact of what he calls “synthetic intellect”. His reference stories are both scary and well told, especially when he describes a disastrous trading day when high-frequency trading programs bring chaos to the stock market.

And it’s not just the old whipping boys of the bankers where Kaplan sees machines (or binary code) taking over the world. From robotics in warehouses and online retailers correctly guessing your next moves, he describes a world where the human element is reduced or is replaced by the superior being of the machine.

You can hardly refer to this theme without bumping into Jeff Bezos and Amazon, of course. Kaplan knows, and says he admires, Bezos, but he retains concerns.

“Today Amazon maintains the illusion, if not the reality, of having everyday low prices,” he writes. “In the future, nothing will deter such companies from presenting you, and only you, with precisely the offers and deals that will maximise the company’s profits.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Kaplan also wonders about the role of today’s plutocrats:

“It’s uncomfortable to realize that Jeff Bezos alone, with the stroke of a pen, could have wiped out the 2009 California annual deficit and still have had several billion dollars left to enjoy. I can’t speak for Jeff, but were I in that position, I would sleep a bit less soundly at night. How many lives could I save? How much suffering could I alleviate? How many dreams fulfill?”

This theme of an “ever concentrating cadre of the elite” is a leitmotif of the book. Kaplan worries that superstars of the tech world like Paul Allen and Larry Ellison get to fund the arts, fulfil sporting ambitions and so on, effectively creating their own fiefdoms.

He also frets about the growing chasm between the super-wealthy and the average citizen.

“Your innocent E*Trade order for one hundred shares in Google was a mere snowflake in this perpetual blizzard, executed mainly as a courtesy to perpetuate the illusion that you can participate in the American dream.”

Other philosophical conundrums pop up. What happens when these synthetic intellects commit crimes, for example?

Kaplan is, he admits, if not in that aforesaid elite cadre, then surely a lucky man. In a Gatsby-esque passage he describes his Californian home with its two concealed outdoor sound systems, theatre like “a Viennese bordello” (!) and kitchen with four seating areas, three dishwashers, and two refrigerators. He can hold a party for “150 without breaking sweat”, there’s a wine cellar, elevator, suites for everybody…

And here’s his punchline: he is not even in the top one per cent of America’s wealthiest. Kaplan contrasts the lives of the wealthiest with those of Americans trying to scale the greasy pole: their struggles to find work, decent salaries, homes and prospects. If further technological changes hit home fast there could be more troubles ahead as current employment roles are eviscerated, he suggests.

Well, yes, you might argue with Kaplan, but then capitalism has always been unfair, the rich have always got richer and many countries have business and political dynasties that back this up... meanwhile, the poor are always with us. All over the world, a tiny minority of people account for a vast percentage of national wealth.

It may be that light-touch regulations have exacerbated that situation, however, and Kaplan is surely on the side of the angels when he closes with a series of ideas for creating a fairer society.

This is a book that will suit general readers as well as those fascinated by the technological developments and what they mean for the future. By all means read it.


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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