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Shonette Laffy


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Book review: Thinking Machines by Luke Dormehl


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Title: Thinking Machines: The inside story of Artificial Intelligence and our race to build the future
Author: Luke Dormehl
ISBN: 978-0753556740
Rating: 4 out of 5

We've always been fascinated with technology and the potential for it to become as smart as - or smarter than - us. These days it's less a question of when the bots will catch up, but more what role we'll each play in the world of the future.

Alongside the excitement and curiosity, there's also fear. What does AI mean for our jobs? Will my smartphone refuse to order me more chocolate bars because it knows that I don't get enough exercise?  Will the robots become our overlords? 

Thinking Machines aims to not only set the scene for where AI has come from and where it is heading, but also dispell a few myths and concerns along the way.

The future is now

As the book goes on to explain, it's not just the long-awaited driverless cars and computers mastering the world's most complicated games - forms of AI have existed in our daily lives for a while now, whether it be in the form of sophisticated spam filters or devices in our homes collecting & using data on our habits (Amazon Echo being the current trendy device).

Technology is getting more pervasive, invasive and intelligent.

From smart homes to smart offices - technology is getting more pervasive, invasive and intelligent. We're becoming more reliant on virtual assistants; from the good (Siri checking the weather, or Amy scheduling our meetings) to the bad (is Clippy from Microsoft Word the worst character in the history of software?). BP and several other US companies offer subsidised Fitbits to employees in order to lower their insurance premiums, and more of our daily choices are informed by recommendations from apps and websites.

There's a great wealth of anecdotes and history in the first few chapters - and although it does touch on neural networks and some of the other background tech that has got us to where we are now, overall the book remains clear, concise and a good layman's introduction to the subject.

The effect on jobs

Of course, one of the major worries when it comes to AI is the disruption it will cause to jobs. A 2013 study from the Oxford Martin School stated that 47% of jobs in the US are vulnerable to automation in the next 20 years - but are there any positives to be gained alongside all this disruption?

Dormehl is quick to reassure us that although big changes are ahead, many of the job reductions will be in 'undesirable work' such as manufacturing, which can be damaging to health and exploitative in poorer countries - it could mean a shift to more ethical employment.

Thinking Machines not only familiarises us with the potential of AI, it also gives us a lot to look forward to.

The tone of the book is far more optimistic and hopeful than most of the content you'll read concerning AI and jobs - especially when it comes to the possibilities for new roles, more creativity in our jobs, and a better approach to work-life balance. Thinking Machines not only familiarises us with the potential of AI, it also gives us a lot to look forward to.

As the author puts hopefully: "Artificial Intelligence may be able to do a lot of the jobs we currently do - but humans are far from irrelevant". Citing an example from a 2011 episode of popular US game show Jeopardy! where IBM's Watson AI beat the reigning champion of the show, Dormehl says "but it's the human personalities we want to see".

Luke Dormehl also recently contributed 'A reason to be optimistic about future jobs' to HRZone for their AI & Jobs content series.

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Shonette Laffy

Deputy Editor

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