Who's Afraid of General AI?

Byron Reese, technology entrepreneur and author of the new book, “The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity” discusses the possibility of creating machines that truly think.

Byron Reese believes technology has only truly reshaped humanity three times in history. The first came with the harnessing of fire. The second with the development of agriculture. And the “third age” came with the invention of the wheel and writing. Reese, CEO and publisher of the technology research company, Gigaom, and host of the Voices in AI podcast, has spent the majority of his career exploring how technology and humanity intersect. He believes the emergence of artificial intelligence is pushing us into a “fourth age” in which AI and robotics will forever transform not only how we work and play, but also how we think about deeper philosophical topics, such as the nature of consciousness.

His latest book, “The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity,” touches on all of these subjects. Byron Reese spoke* with Design News about the implications of artificial general intelligence (AGI), the possibility of creating machines that truly think, automation's impact on jobs, and the ways society might be forever transformed by AI.

Image source: Byron Reese / Simon and Schuster

Design News: You've written books on the impact of technology on society in the past. What made you decide to delve into this specific topic of artificial intelligence now?

Byron Reese: I really did feel like the AI space was full of all these knowledgeable people who had very different conclusions about how things could shake out. And when you get to the job debate—what effect automation is going to have on employment—again, very smart people have very different ideas.

I came to this conclusion that it's not that they know different things; it's that they believe different things. And I couldn't find anything that kind of addressed that. The more I got into it, I realized it's a philosophy question more than a technical question.

That whole thread really excited me, so I distilled it down to, I think, three essential questions. The first is: How is automation going to affect employment? The second is around AGI. Is it something we're going to build? What is it? How hard is it? Are we on the way? Does anybody know how to make it? And then the third question is the question of whether computers can be alive and conscious or not.

In the first section [of the book], I say that there are only three different scenarios for automation: [AI] can do anything a person can do; it can make better poetry and everything; and every job is going to vanish. Another scenario is that we're not going to have any uptick in unemployment because for 200 years, it's remained steady in this country. And then there's this other [notion], which is that we're going to destroy jobs faster than we can create them and we're going to have perpetual long-term unemployment.

DN: It seems a lot of the discussion around AI focuses on what AI and automation can do, but tends to discount what humans can do. How do you sort through all that and get to what's possible versus what isn't?

BR: With robots, it is oddly easy because they're so primitive. Someone once said, if there's ever a robot uprising, just wait 15 minutes because all their batteries will be dead.

[Robots] can do so little. What they can do is repetitive things over and over and over. What I tried to do is go through and read everything and try to go visit the people that are making these things. It's hard, though, because 'robot' is not the right word. An automatic beekeeper is a robot, but an automatic bookkeeper is software. And yet they do the same thing—they replace human labor.

So if you broaden the definition to robots being software, which I think is fair, then I think what people are excited about is machine learning. Machine learning has a really basic assumption, which is that the future is like the past, but that's only useful when you can study the past and extrapolate it into the future.