“The Fourth Age – Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity” by Byron Reese – A review by Usman Zafar Paracha
The book, “The Fourth Age – Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity” by Byron Reese, has beautiful flow of information on a topic that is presently grabbing the attention of almost every technology lover and entrepreneur – the artificial intelligence (AI). In the book, the writer has beautifully integrated the philosophy, history, biology, and sociology into technology. This integration seems important to provide information/answer related to the topic of the book. For instance, in case of philosophy, one may find this question interesting:
“What exactly are we? Again, a multiple-choice question, with three possible answers: machines, animals, or humans.”
And reading the book can help in knowing the answer to this question.
The writing style of the book is such that the reader easily makes a flow chart of all the information presented in the book. For example, fire was developed that was used for digestion, then writing was developed, then wheels were developed, and eventually computers were developed. Or in case of computation, first the work of Babbage could be considered, then that of Turing, then that of von Neumann, and then that of Shannon. This helps in keeping the flow of information in the book, and improving the understanding of the reader.
The writing style is also very lively… For example, “fasten your seat belt”, “Exit Babbage” (For whom we have already talked), and “Enter Alan Turing” (for whom we are going to talk). Reading the book seems like we are on a technological “safari” and in this expedition, we are observing different aspects of computing technology.
Several interesting parts from history could be found in the book as, for example, Antikythera mechanism, Code of Ur-Nammu, and Code of Hammurabi. The author has presented them in such a beautiful way that a reader would not be able to stop himself from further research. On the other hand, it is also important to note that although the author has presented several interesting aspects of scientific history in the first few sections, he has not covered the advances made by Muslim scientists during the time from 8th century to 13th century. Moreover, the author forgets to mention about “Al-Jazari” who is also considered as the Father of Robotics. Nevertheless, some information from that time has been given in the ending sections.
The author has helped in understanding the different concepts and aspects of technology through examples and easy comparisons; thereby, making it easy for the reader to understanding the point of view of the author. For example,
“if you needed 125,000 of them (transistors), you needed a million dollars in today’s money. But the price fell dramatically as the quantity produced skyrocketed. By 2004, the number of transistors manufactured surpassed the number of grains of rice that were grown across the planet. Just six years later, in 2010, you could buy that same 125,000 transistors that cost a million dollars in 1960 for the same price as you would pay for a single grain of rice.”
It is also important to note that although such books do not usually give citations, it seems imperative to consider the citations especially for the presentation of statistics and numbers. For example, during historical figures and biological numbers, one may not find the appropriate reference in many cases in the book. Moreover, in the last sections of the book that are dealing with the future of humanity, the author has not concentrated on artificial intelligence, rather discussed the technology (in general).
I also asked Byron Reese about the future projects, he said, “That’s something that has been on my mind lately. The AI is so big, I am tempted to dive deeper into how it would change the world. I might explore that through fiction instead of non-fiction… I don’t know. Right now, I am reading an enormous amount, and I have little doubt that that will set me off in some direction.”
Conclusively, remember “we don’t know” many things, as noted by the author at different places, and this is the starting point in the journey of knowledge.
Some of my favorite quotations from the book are as follows:
“…with cities and agriculture, withholding food was a way for those in power to silence opposition, while distributing food was a way to ensure obedience. This is still done in parts of the world today.”
“As the historian Will Durant points out, you get to pick only one, because you can’t have them both. People truly free will become unequal. People with equality forced on them are not free. This tug-of-war still plays out today.”
“Vladimir Lenin said, ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.’”
“I have often thought that if entrepreneurs knew their real chances for success, vastly fewer enterprises would be undertaken.”
“With nearly a billion hungry people in the world, there is obviously no single cause. However, far and away the biggest cause is poverty.”
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