Humans and machines

My colleague Neil Lawrence’s new book, The Atomic Human: Understanding Ourselves in the Age of AI, is a terrific account of why ‘artificial intelligence’ is fundamentally different from embodied human intelligence – which makes it on the one hand an optimistic perspective, but on the other leads him to end with an alarming warning, that the potential of pervasive machine intelligence, “could be as damaging to our cultural ecosystem as our actions have been to the natural ecosystem.” The influence of AI on human society could be parallel to our adverse influence on the environment – no matter how good the intentions – because just as nature moves at the pace of evolutionary time so the interface between humans and nature has failed to take account of the damage humans cause, so the computer-human interface is characterised by this mismatch in information-processing speeds.

The book does not offer a handy list of actions to prevent the damage AI might do to us, but ends by warning about two things: the immense concentration of power in its development and use; and the use of automated decision-making in contexts where any judgement is essential – which is many contexts where uncertainty enters the picture. I rather fear those horses have bolted, though.

Most of the book is a fascinating account of both types of intelligence, AI and human cognition, using information theory as well as cognitive science to explain the profound differences. As he notes, “Shannon defined information as being separated from its context,” but humans need contextual understanding to communicate. Neil uses stories to provide context, to make what could be rather dry material more engaging, braiding the same examples (many from wartime: Bletchley Park, his grandfather’s D-Day experience alongside General Patton’s, the development of radar, missile testing…) through the text. Sometimes I found these confusing, but I have a very literal mind.

There have been lots of books about AI out this year, and I’ve generally enjoyed the ones I’ve read – although whatever you do, avoid Ray Kurzweil’s. I’d recommend adding this one to the to-read list, as it offers a fresh perspective on AI from a super-expert and super-thoughtful practitioner.

Screenshot 2024-06-22 at 11.18.14

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