Across the board, the common reaction I got from everyone who knew I was reading a book on artificial intelligence was something along the lines of “Robots will replace us in the workforce and take over the world!” Cue the conversation drifting to wild, Detroit: Become Human-like scenarios, and me trying to explain what AI actually is without sounding like a conspiracy theorist.
My main takeaway over the last few weeks was that the impression most people still have of AI is futuristic: robots performing surgery or fighting our wars and such. Many of us don’t realise that AI is already entrenched our lives today. For instance, AI allowed you to unlock your device with your fingerprint, and AI nudged you to read this review when it put this post at the top of your social media feed because you’ve continually shown interest in Fully Booked’s content.
It’s convenient when our machines know us deeply enough to ensure life is always set to our preferences. But that means that the people behind our machines know about us deeply too. And The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans & Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity by Amy Webb has some pretty dire things to say about that.
The personal and the political
If I tell you about The Big Nine elevator pitch-style, I’ll definitely sound like a conspiracy theorist. The Big Nine recognises this, so it takes the time to deconstruct then reconstruct your impressions of AI, brick by fundamental brick.
The first part of the book walks you through the history of AI, from before the first calculator to beyond thinking machines that trained themselves to kick your butt at chess. Then it introduces you to the people behind AI, the troublingly narrow selection of people creating thinking machines, which makes for a troublingly narrow worldview about the applications of AI. It’s a gold mine of information for noobs who have no prior knowledge of artificial intelligence, and it’s the part of the book that will irrevocably change the way you see the world today.
Of course, armed with a deeper understanding of AI, you can no longer unsee its presence literally everywhere. The Big Nine explains how AI pervades everything from your personal decision-making to the course of international politics. And if we’re going to sum up the book’s political predictions in a Tweet, it would be this: America plans to use AI to dominate the world through consumerism, and China plans to use AI to dominate the world, period.
In the West
Six of the nine tech giants are American companies (Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft), which The Big Nine collectively refers to as the G-MAFIA. In America, artificial intelligence research is not funded by the government. This is especially true in the Trump administration, where science is discredited by politicians to further their agenda, and the national budget for research is dramatically slashed. Meanwhile, employees of tech companies distrust the government and military, and refuse to do work with them. As a result, the American government is behind in including AI in their long-term strategies for the future.
Instead, American tech companies are funded by Wall Street investors, who put pressure on them to constantly release new products to drive consumers. This breakneck pace in production allows the G-MAFIA no time to slow down and reflect on their AI creations’ many societal, ethical, and economical implications in the real world.
Risk simulation is not part of product testing, which leads to unintended issues ranging from AI systems mishandling user data, to smart households glitching, to flagging Harvard professor and former Chief Technology Officer of the US Federal Trade Commission Latanya Sweeney as a criminal based on her Black-identifying first name. When the G-MAFIA have to turn huge profits to stay afloat, ethics take a backseat to production, and AI can have catastrophic consequences for users on a personal level.
In the East
But that’s nothing compared to the calamity of how artificial intelligence impacts users in China. The remaining three tech giants, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (referred to by the book as BAT) work hand in glove with the Chinese government and military. AI tech is omnipresent in the daily lives of Chinese citizens and controlled tightly by the government. Everybody’s data is collected and monitored by the state, and interpretations of this data – what you say on social media, how many hours you spend playing video games, how fast you drove on the highway this morning – directly affect your safety and quality of life.
In the news, we hear about China’s social credit score system and the Uighur concentration camps. BAT’s AI developments are being used to slowly enforce a near-dystopian existence in China. And with China aggressively positioning itself as the next dominant global power – sealing tech deals, sidelining the US, and building “smart cities” in smaller countries – The Big Nine predicts that this dystopia is poised to become world history.
Fiction or our future?
Using present-day data, The Big Nine presents three scenarios about humanity and the future of AI. No spoilers, as this part of the book is a fun mental exercise to imagine, but the scenarios range from the “optimistic” (in which humanity gets on top of artificial intelligence and their own profitable agendas, and China loses its autocratic influence) to the “catastrophic” (in which democracy crumples from the inside out thanks to China’s sneakily-placed footholds around the world and the assiduous mining of our personal data).
Of course, The Big Nine’s best-case scenario strategies are bent towards preserving America as the dominant global power – which may raise some eyebrows if you’re a citizen of a small Asian country that America once colonised. But if it’s a toss-up between working with a democratic global power and a Communist one, I think our best bet is still sharing the lunch table with a country where oppression isn’t the main course (at least, on paper). Even if perhaps that’s not the safest thing to say if you’re a citizen of a small Asian country China is angling to colonise.
You know how when tragedy strikes and you waste so much time feeling awful about it and hoping things would go back to normal – a.k.a. the way things were – rather than accepting that life as a person affected by this tragedy is the new normal? The same is true for AI. The G-MAFIA and BAT can’t take back the technology they’ve created, and there’s no going back to the point in the road where we didn’t coexist with thinking machines. But The Big Nine says we can at least start steering the bus to a different destination now.
The book provides recommendations on worldwide change, governmental reorientation between the US and China, a revamp of the AI industry and culture, and actionable steps for the average Joe (and Juan Dela Cruz) in order to change the direction of AI. Maybe sophisticated humanoid robots aren’t here yet, but AI is already a part of our lives and it isn’t going anywhere. What The Big Nine wants us to acknowledge is that we have to actively plan for a future that has AI inevitably interwoven into our lives, rather than tricking ourselves into thinking its influence is something we can turn on and off when convenient.
This is more than my semi-regular argument with my mother about how PayPal is just as valid a way to manage money as using a passbook (a passbook! In 2019!). It’s about re-calibrating the G-MAFIA before we’re locked into a future dependent on their creations, about governments that can make inferences about our data and punish us for what they find, and about preventing BAT from being instrumental in oppression on a worldwide scale.
At its core, The Big Nine hopes that the world will come together sooner rather than later to prevent AI from being used – either by capitalists or by Communists – as a tool to take away humanity’s free will.