Even with apocalypse camped on the horizon, this is a wry and witty tour of intelligence and where it may take us. And where exactly is that? A machine that masters all the above would be a “formidable decision maker in the real world”, Russell says. It would absorb vast amounts of information from the internet, TV, radio, satellites and CCTV and with it gain a more sophisticated understanding of the world and its inhabitants than any human could ever hope for.
What could possibly go right? In education, AI tutors would maximise the potential of every child. They would master the vast complexity of the human body, letting us banish disease. As digital personal assistants they would put Siri and Alexa to shame: “You would, in effect, have a high-powered lawyer, accountant, and political advisor on call at any time.”
Much of Russell’s book, indeed, is a brilliantly clear and fascinating exposition of the history of computing thus far, and how very difficult true AI will be to build. It has, though, historically always been a bad bet to say that some scientific or technological revolution (e.g. flying machines) is simply impossible, so Russell turns his attention to a projected future of real AI, which he guesses might happen in around 80 years. What then? Why, then we face the subtitular ‘problem of control’. Given a machine that, ex hypothesi, is far more intelligent than a human, how do we make sure it acts only in ways beneficial to us?
Russell succeeds in making a complex subject intelligible without falling into the sort of crass popularisation that often infects books on important tech topics. He deploys a bracing intellectual rigour, such as when he explodes the many arguments that have been made for why AI couldn’t pose a threat to humans. But a laconic style and dry humour keep his book accessible to the lay reader.