The Big Nine: A book review by Bob Morris

The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity
Amy Webb
Public Affairs (March 2019)

So many questions: Great peril or great opportunity? Both? Neither? Who decides?

As author Shoshana Zuboff explains, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “is about the darkening of the digital dream and its rapid mutation into a voracious and utterly novel commercial project that I call surveillance capitalism.” She provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel that she hopes will help those who read her book to contest and interrupt, then contain and vanquish an unprecedented threat to the human race. “At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human experience.”

Amy Webb shares comparable concerns about the potential threat: The possibility that nine “tech titans” and their thinking machines could “warp humanity.” They are Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft in the United States and Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent in China. According to Webb, “the problem is that external forces pressuring the nine big tech giants — and by extension, those working inside the ecosystem – are conspiring against their best intentions for our futures. There’s a lot of blame to pass around.”

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye:

o Could a Thinking Machine Be Built? (Pages 23-26)
o The Summer and Winter of AI (29-38)
o Winning abd Losing (42-50)
o The Tribe Leaders (53-65)
o America’s Tribes: The G-MAFIA (85-96)

o The Values Algorithm (98-103)
o Our Personal Values Drive Decisions (108-113)
o Humanity’s Shared Values (122-126)
o Optimize AI for humans (126-131)
o AI: Two warnings (136-143)

o The Stories We Must Tell Ourselves (150-154)
o 2029: Comfortably Nudged (159-169)
o 2069: AI-powered Guardians of the Galaxy (177-178)
o Nagging is the new nudging (194-196)
o 2049: And Then There Were Five (201-203)

o Amazon and Apple: Catastrophic scenario of future (215-219)
o 2069: Digital Annihilation (228-229
o Worldwide Systematic Change: The Case for Creating GAIA (237-244)
o Need for change in Big Nine (250-256)
o You Need to Change, Too (259-261)

How can at least some companies get from where they are now to artificial superintelligence? Webb shares her thoughts about that in Chapter Four, suggesting “there are now clear warning signs portending future crises, even if those signals are not immediately obvious. While there are several, here are two examples worth your consideration along with potential consequences.” First, “We mistakenly treat artificial intelligence like a digging platform — similar to the internet — with no guiding principles or long-term plans for its growth.” And then, “AI is rapidly concentrating power among the few even as we view AI as an open ecosystem with few barriers. The future of AI is being built by two countries — America and China — with competing political interests, whose economies are closely intertwined, and whose leaders are often at odds with each other.” These are especially complicated — and compelling — issues that she examines with rigor. (See Pages 135-143)

When concluding her brilliant book, Amy Webb invokes several metaphors — tribes, pipelines, building blocks, pebbles, boulders, and mountains in movement — when explaining what her readers must do to prevent the “warping” of humanity. “Now you know what AI is, what it isn’t, and why it matters. You know about the Big Nine, and about their histories and desires for the future…You are a member of AI’s tribes. You have no more excuses…This is your chance. Pick up a pebble. Start up the mountain.”

In this context, I am again reminded of an observation by Margaret Mead: “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”

The mountain awaits….


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