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The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity

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A call-to-arms about the broken nature of artificial intelligence, and the powerful corporations that are turning the human-machine relationship on its head.

We like to think that we are in control of the future of "artificial" intelligence. The reality, though, is that we -- the everyday people whose data powers AI -- aren't actually in control of anything. When, for example, we speak with Alexa, we contribute that data to a system we can't see and have no input into -- one largely free from regulation or oversight. The big nine corporations -- Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, Microsoft, IBM and Apple--are the new gods of AI and are short-changing our futures to reap immediate financial gain.

In this book, Amy Webb reveals the pervasive, invisible ways in which the foundations of AI -- the people working on the system, their motivations, the technology itself -- is broken. Within our lifetimes, AI will, by design, begin to behave unpredictably, thinking and acting in ways which defy human logic. The big nine corporations may be inadvertently building and enabling vast arrays of intelligent systems that don't share our motivations, desires, or hopes for the future of humanity.

Much more than a passionate, human-centered call-to-arms, this book delivers a strategy for changing course, and provides a path for liberating us from algorithmic decision-makers and powerful corporations.

336 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2019

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About the author

Amy Webb

4 books291 followers
Amy Webb was named by Forbes as one of the five women changing the world, listed as the BBC’s 100 Women of 2020, ranked on the Thinkers50 list of the 50 most influential management thinkers globally. She is the author of several popular books, including The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, which was longlisted for the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year award, shortlisted for the Thinkers50 Digital Thinking Award, and won the 2020 Gold Axiom Medal for the best book about business and technology, and The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, which won the Thinkers50 Radar Award, was selected as one of Fast Company’s Best Books of 2016, Amazon’s best books 2016, and was the recipient of the 2017 Gold Axiom Medal for the best book about business and technology. Her latest book, The Genesis Machine, explores the futures of synthetic biology. A lifelong science fiction fan, Amy collaborates closely with Hollywood writers and producers on films, TV shows and commercials about science, technology and the future. Recent projects include The First, a sci-fi drama about the first humans to travel to Mars, an AT&T commercial featuring a fully-autonomous car directed by Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow, and an upcoming film based on Amy’s hilarious and heart wrenching memoir about data, algorithms and online dating (Data, A Love Story). Amy is a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and has served as a Blue Ribbon Emmy award judge. Amy Webb “showed Comic-Con how it’s done” declared the Los Angeles Times, describing the 2019 main stage Westworld session she moderated with the show’s actors and showrunners.

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Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 28 books387 followers
April 3, 2019
If you're looking for an expert to confirm your fears about killer robots, the grey goo problem, or robots taking all our jobs, you're in the wrong place. Amy Webb began her career as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She has become a widely respected futurist, author, and founder of the Future Today Institute in Philadelphia. Webb is also a professor of strategic foresight at New York University's Stern School of Business and frequently advises corporate and government leaders. It would be hard to find a better-credentialed person to view what human society can expect from the future of artificial intelligence. That's the subject of her superb new book, The Big Nine.

Webb is tough, and highly critical at times, but her approach is well-balanced. There's no hysteria or irrational exuberance in this book. "Fundamentally," she writes, "I believe that AI is a positive force, one that will elevate the next generations of humankind and help us to achieve our most idealistic visions of the future."

A future dominated by AI

The Big Nine consists of three sections. In Part I, Webb explains what AI is all about and describes the role that the Big Nine have played in developing it. She also briefly sketches the history of artificial intelligence from the 17th century to the present. (It's a fascinating treatment of the subject and reaches farther back into the past than other accounts I've read.) Part II includes three imaginative scenarios for how AI might play out over the next 50 years. In Part III, Webb introduces her prescription for action to stave off the worst of the problems that might arise from the shift from ANI (weak AI or artificial narrow intelligence) to AGI (strong AI or artificial general intelligence). And she makes clear that those problems may represent an existential threat to Western civilization as we know it today.

Artificial intelligence may upend the world balance of power and wealth

For nearly 2,000 years up until about 1800, China and India were the wealthiest societies on the planet. But the Industrial Revolution quickly changed that. By the end  of the 19th century, both countries had deeply descended into poverty. And that trend only continued until Deng Xiaoping in 1978 and Manmohan Singh in 1991 set their nations firmly on the path to economic growth. Now, in Webb's view, the advent of artificial intelligence may soon reverse the imbalance. China, already on the way to become the world's dominant economic power in less than a decade, may soon achieve political and military hegemony as well—unless the leadership of the United States wakes up to the threat posed by AI. And if we in the US continue to ignore that threat, we might well find it increasingly difficult to compete with China. In a future dominated by AI, we're likely to find that we're captive to Chinese AI.

Why AI poses an economic, political, and military threat to the world

Webb's arguments boil down to four essential points:

1. The Chinese government controls all artificial intelligence R&D in China

China's three leading companies engaging in artificial intelligence research operate under the thumb of the country's central government. (The companies are Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, and they're all huge.) The three—Webb calls them the BAT—share all their data and technology with the central government. Beijing is free to put all that to use for social control and military development. Which, in fact, it's doing in a very big way.

The Social Credit System

The implications of this marriage between government and the private sector in China are deeply troubling. One important indication of how this might play out lies in the Chinese Communist Party's AI-powered Social Credit System. The system "was developed to engineer a problem-free society by 'allow[ing] the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.' To promote 'trustworthiness,' citizens are rated on a number of different data points, like heroic acts (points earned) or traffic tickets (points deducted)."

Shades of 1984 and Brave New World

There is nothing subtle about the Social Credit System. "Citizens are labeled and sorted into different brackets, ranging from A+++ to D, and their choices and ability to move around freely are dictated by their grade. . . Those with lower scores face hurdles applying for jobs, buying a home, or getting kids into schools. In some cities, high-scoring residents have their pictures on display. In other cities, such as Shandong, citizens who jaywalk have their faces publicly shared on digital billboards and sent automatically to Weibo, a popular social network." It's difficult to ignore how chillingly this system calls up analogies to 1984 and Brave New World.

2. China's President has set out to use AI to make China the world's leading power by 2030

Chinese President Xi Xinping has made AI the country's top priority and is investing billions in making China the world's leading power by 2030. Of course, the state's vast resources are also directed toward building the Chinese military into the most powerful in the world. And China is ensnaring dozens of countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America through unaffordable infrastructure loans.

But the country is also investing billions in AI, much of it to drain elite American and British universities and tech companies of their top talent. Meanwhile, Xi's Belt and Road Initiative involves exporting the Social Credit System. And that will effectively add to the 1.4 billion Chinese whose lives will soon be controlled by Beijing as the people of China's satellites are drawn into the system. It's all part of the strategy to make China the new colonial power. But AI is the key to this strategy. And, Webb writes, "if AI is China's space race, it's currently positioned to win, and to win big."

3. The Trump Administration is blind to the threat of the Chinese strategy

The US political leadership is blind to the implications of Xi Xinping's strategy. Our federal government continues to cut back on AI funding when what is called for is a massive nationwide program comparable to the Manhattan and Apollo Projects. The Obama Administration took a tentative step in this direction. But President Trump has eliminated the program. And he has been systematically cutting back on science programs in general since 2017. Which is precisely the wrong approach to secure our future. "The US needs a cohesive national AI strategy backed by a reasonable budget," Webb writes. And that budget must involve tens of billions of dollars.

4. America's dominant AI companies are building their biases into AI

In the United States, six companies constitute what Webb terms the G-Mafia: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and IBM. (Together, these six and the BAT make up the Big Nine of the book's title.) These six leading tech companies work competitively, largely ignore the social impact of their technology, and rush products to market too quickly in the interest of maximizing profit. They're great at making gadgets that often make our lives easier. But they don't think through in advance how those products might impact society. And they're led largely by white men who fail to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion.

Like-minded people within small, insular groups

"The future of AI is being built by a relatively few like-minded people within small, insulated groups," writes Webb. Like all insular groups, they develop strong shared biases. The upshot is that they're building those biases into AI. And ethical considerations about the implementation of AI routinely take a back seat to profit and speed. ("Build it first and ask for forgiveness later.") And here's the crux of the matter: these like-minded people "are inculcating a culture in which women and certain minorities—like Black and Hispanic people—are excluded." Not to mention the sexist assumptions that have been built into AI-driven software already in use.

"What's not on the table, at the G-MAFIA or BAT," insists Webb, "is optimizing for empathy. Take empathy out of the decision-making process, and you take away our humanity."

There is no robot apocalypse in sight

"There won't be a singular event when the technology blows up and goes bad," Webb writes. "What we're all about to experience is more like a gradual series of paper cuts." Over the next 50 years, "we're not heading toward a single catastrophe but rather the steady erosion of the humanity we take for granted today." And the cumulative effect may be stifling. "There isn't a facet of your personal or professional life that won't be impacted by AI."In the future, Webb foresees, we might discover that our most personal choices are circumscribed by AI. For example, in her catastrophic scenario, we may find that "status is determined by 'being our best selves,' where 'best' got defined long ago by a relative few programmers who thought an organic ketogenic diet, midday yoga classes, and regular trips to the chiropractor were the keys to an optimized existence. If you don't take a weekly infrared sauna, the AI system you're tethered to will record noncompliance in your [personal data record]." This is far-fetched, of course, but the point is made.

Three scenarios for the development of AI

It's no surprise that futurist Amy Webb would make extensive use of scenario planning in this book. Sketching out possible futures offers the most vivid way to demonstrate how different policy choices may play out in the future. And in Part II of The Big Nine, Webb does so adroitly. She presents three scenarios:

Optimistic scenario

At her most optimistic (and idealistic), Webb foresees the creation of GAIA (the Global Alliance on Intelligence Augmentation). GAIA represents a voluntary coalition of the federal government, major European nations, and the G-MAFIA. Together, they draw up standards and procedures to guide the continuing development of AI in a positive direction. This would involved "limit[ing] the rate of self-improvement [of AI], adding constraints into all AI systems to keep humans in the loop." By its own choice, China opts not to join GAIA. The result is that the country finds its influence around the globe diminishing.

Pragmatic scenario

Toning down the idealism, Webb ventures onto a middle course in what she calls a pragmatic scenario. Nothing like GAIA has come into existence, and the US political leadership persists in ignoring the threat of China. That country now "dominates advanced tech industries, including robotics, new energies, genomics, and aviation."

Meanwhile, AI developers in the US continue to bring products to market, and to profitability, as quickly as possible. "Safety is an afterthought." And a digital caste system emerges as automation eliminates waves of middle managers, including many in creative fields, as well as laborers and low-skill workers. Profits continue to shift upward to the top of the pay-scale and to investors. By 2069, American has become the "Digitally Occupied States of America." China now controls most of Earth's population. "Your transportation, bank, health care system, light switches, and refrigerators are all controllable by China."

Catastrophic scenario

Perhaps it's hard to imagine that Webb's "catastrophic" scenario could be any worse than the pragmatic one. But she succeeds in chilling ways. But you'll need to read the book to find out. I just don't have the heart to summarize the impact here.What is the solution?Webb doesn't advocate the approach recently popularized by Senator Elizabeth Warren—breaking up Google, Amazon, and Facebook through antitrust action. And she soundly rejects government regulation of AI. In general, the author's approach is strongly pro-business. "The Big Nine aren't the villains in this story. In fact, they are our best hope for the future." However, Webb makes clear that steps must be taken now to ensure that this potential can be realized.

Create a global coalition of governments and tech companies

The creation of GAIA is at the top of Webb's list. She also emphasizes that "the Big Nine should prioritize our human rights first and should not view us as resources to be mined for either profit of political gain." It's also critical in her view that "our personal data records should be interoperable and should be owned by us." (Interoperability will prevent the creation of inescapable corporate systems that lock everyone into just one of a handful of AI-powered tech companies.) Webb lays out a prescription for action that consists of 15 items. And she makes the case for "reorienting" US attitudes and action toward China.

Government must learn what AI means—and fund basic research to advance it

The key to Webb's proposed solution is that "people who work on budgets, those who write policy [in the American government] should demonstrate a working knowledge of AI and, ideally, should have technical expertise." Because the crux of our problem currently is this: the Trump Administration has proposed funding for artificial intelligence research and development that consists of "appallingly low numbers that demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of what AI promises and truly requires. . . [I]f our government can't or won't fund basic research, then the G-MAFIA is stuck answering to Wall Street." Which demands fast lab-to-market product launches and ever-increasing profits.

"AI demands courageous leadership now. We need our government to make difficult choices."

Is Webb's approach feasible?

It's difficult to fault the logic Webb employs in The Big Nine. However, despite acknowledging the impact of climate change in her scenarios, I believe she significantly underplays how dramatic that might be. And what she describes as optimism is heavily laced with idealism. I fear that a great many of her recommendations for change will never be heeded. (Can you imagine Donald Trump acceding to the creation of anything like the GAIA Webb proposes?) Nonetheless, I hope every tech executive and investor in Silicon Valley will read this book. Webb has brought together between the covers of one short book a wealth of information—and informed speculation—about what lies ahead.
Profile Image for Jacques Coulardeau.
Author 27 books29 followers
April 14, 2019

The author has spent long periods of time in China and Japan. She thus knows what she is speaking about, and yet she is direct testimony of what they start considering in the USA in various fields, first police work, second the Silicon Valley, that is to say, unconscious bias. In her case she would swear to god or gods that it is true, that it is factual, that it is undeniable that China is first an absolute dictatorship, even when she only says a totalitarian state, definitely undemocratic, unliberal, you name it you have it. Second China is developing a project that only targets the total domination and control of the whole world. Hence China is the enemy for the supposedly democratic USA and by extension the supposedly free world.

That’s only an opening remark that unluckily points at a shortcoming that is so common among American intellectuals, CEOs of any sort or kind. It may be seen as catching in some areas in Western Europe, but certainly not in Europe as a whole and not even in the Brexiting United Kingdom for which China might be the price to pay in order not to sink in a post- or even pre-Brexit recession.

And that leads me to a second remark that is just as fundamental and yet is only a side remark as for the main subject of the book. Europe is plainly absent 100% from this book that deals with Artificial Intelligence in the age of 5G communication. I am afraid this too is an unconscious bias from an American intellectual: she does not know about Europe, she does not consider Europe and in Europe we should not forget Belarus and Russia, even by the way Ukraine, the three countries that diagnosed the cyber-attack against the nuclear centrifuges of Iran under Barack Obama and from a joint Israeli and US cyberwar initiative. They diagnosed it and they blocked it. At the same time this refusal to consider Europe would be embarrassing because Russia has hacking technology far superior to anything the USA or western Europe may think of, to the point that the two missiles attacks of the USA against Syria on the pretext of some unclear chemical attacks were thwarted more than fifty percent by Russia hacking the missiles themselves after launching and dispatching them away from their target. The first time that was a big surprise for the US armed forces. The second time they could verify they did not have the proper answer. They later spoke of a third attack, maybe, but it never materialized for the simple reason: they cannot control their missiles as soon as they are launched.

Now the book is about a crucial subject for our present times: artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G communication. The book is based on a systematic dystopic vision based on essentially a twisted vision of China that is acknowledged as being far ahead in this field as compared to the USA (no mention of Europe and the possible alliance with Russia, Belarus and some western European countries) but described as having the desire to introduce systematic surveillance of every single citizen – or is it resident I should say, since in her vision there are no free elections and thus no democracy in China, therefore no citizens – who will be face-recognized at any time and maybe even of course at home with all sorts of AI connected objects like fridges, TVs, computers, alarm clocks, and probably toothbrushes and toilet flushes. When you push that rewriting of 1984 and Big Brother to toothbrushes and toilet flushes you actually see the paranoid hysteria behind this vision. And the second motivation of the Chinese Communist Party is to colonize – purely and simply colonize – the whole world via commercial ventures like the Belt and Road Initiative. What is surprising is that she does not integrate in 2019 the company Huawei which is the Chinese most-advanced-in-the-world 5G-communication company, and what’s more state-owned or at least state-controlled. Huawei is at least the fourth company she could consider on the Chinese side and her BAT would become a BATH, in other words, the Chinese policy of developing AI in all possible fields (unescapably dictated, by the way, for industry and employment by the retiring of numerous unskilled workers and their replacing by young highly-skilled workers in a 3 to 1 proportion at least. The Chinese have better develop AI applications not to fall into a labor recession) this policy would thus become in this anti-Chinese perspective a real blood BATH. The author never takes this fact into account.

Now, what are the subject and main argument of the book?

If we consider the foreseeable future development of AI within 5G-communication with all sorts of connected objects with the Internet-of-Things, the world is going to fall under the total control of nine companies. In the USA (which from experience includes Europe but since the European specific characteristics are not taken into account, the US-centered discourse is totally unrealistic) six companies are taken into account. She calls them G-MAFIA meaning Google as the main one, hence the dash, then Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, IBM, and Amazon. On the Chinese side, only three companies qualify for this 2019 book, which is slightly outdated, as what she calls BAT: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. I just said it was short. She should have added Huawei and of course Lenovo, and that’s probably not all because the Chinese are not tinkering with research in this field with start-ups and other individual enterprises, but they are implementing directly in productive fields like train technology, plane technology, electric car technology, and of course other fields in which the USA and the West are still infants like agriculture, water management, and environment, pollution, climate change and some more not to speak of maritime technology and security with satellite and AI implementations on the giant container ships and tankers of today in the three international alliances in this field that bans all flags of convenience and in which the USA is absolutely absent (both shipping companies, container ships and tankers, and the third element that harbor technology is). It is this absence of real fields and domains of economic development using AI that is amazing. Today with satellites we can follow all ships, control all their operations in the various harbors, and guarantee maritime transportation against all sorts of trafficking, high jacking and piracy, and of course speculation and corruption.

She sees very well that China has two advantages: 1- it is technically far ahead of the west, and 2- it is managing this field of technological development with planification over the next ten to twenty years, and maybe beyond. And the third advantage is the fact that it is all under the control of a stable government. She can consider this government is undemocratic, non-elected, or whatever. Its stability and its constant renewal are guarantees that there will not be some brutal change of direction. If the objectives changed it would be under the management from scientists and thus progressive and objective. In spite of what she says there is a lot of transparency in this Chinese society and in fact we know what the Chinese are doing better than what Facebook or Google are doing, precisely because of the planification and the various plans and reports are available for everyone to download them.

She sees very well the disadvantages of the US that could be considered as the representative of the West, though that would be a mistake.

The Federal government of the USA has no planification for this or any other development in the industrial, social or technological, let alone cultural fields. They are dominated by a government that changes every four years and that is entirely dominated by the obligation of new elections every four years with mid-term elections that reduce the planification – if we can call that planification – to two years. If there is some follow-up control it comes from agencies that are managed on a day to day basis by bureaucrats and these agencies are ABSOLUTELY NOT TRANSPARENT AT ALL. She perfectly sees that this technological development is in the sole hands of six companies, of the Silicon Valley, of individuals who are ABSOLUTELY NOT TRANSPARENT for the wide public and who are only RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT THEY DO ONLY TO THE STAKEHOLDERS AND STOCKHOLDERS OF THE COMPANIES which guarantees first, private interests are absolute; second, transparency is totally impossible; and third, greed is the main motivation (to make as much money as fast as possible). There is no way out though Europe is little by little imposing first, regulations; second, sanctions and fines if the companies do not respect these regulations, and third, you have to keep in mind that for Europe China is an alternative in all fields and that the European Union is not trying to keep China out, but is trying to keep the Chinese influence under some kind of control. But if US computers (made in China by the way) are too expensive for the public, so the market will bring Chinese computers that are technically good or even better and that are a lot cheaper, if they want, and if not cheaper at least with such profit margins that Chinese is getting fat on such commerce). At the present moment in Europe iPad and iPhones are becoming a niche and will never reach the wide public available on the market.

The three scenarios for the future she proposes, are all absurd because they do not take Europe into consideration and because they are all of them biased as for China, the Chinese Communist Party, the Belt and Road Initiative, etc. And she probably does not realize that her future plan is based on the idea that there is no “democratic” future that does not come from the USA and from the G-MAFIA US companies. I do not trust Google and the others to accept to be ethical, honest, transparent, and morally, ethically, socially, culturally sustainable. Are politicians better? Probably not but at least they are not eternal, and they can be removed from office. Who can remove Zuckerberg from Facebook? The people? Let me laugh. The market? Even, worse as long as he is making mountains of profit. She considers Facebook will disappear soon, killed by the market, both the loss of millions of customers and competition from better social networks, not to mention the loss of advertisers who do not want to become the financiers of some political dark underground and uncheckable project à la Steve Bannon.

The future can only come from the constant, stable and long-lasting cooperation among three bodies of people: first, the political authorities of all countries in the world. Second, the scientific and technological actors in this field of AI and its applications, not the financial CEOs but the real scientific and technological CEOs. And third, representatives of the mass of people who are users and customers. That third body cannot be reduced to the behavior of customers on the market. It has to be a body that can orient the research in these fields towards what would be most beneficial to most people. Actually, I would say the Chinese system is a lot more effective at that level. Even if we don’t know about it.

There would be a lot more to say on this book, but the flaws are essentially what I have said and her plan for the future is to force the Chinese Communist Party to accept her vision, even by using the BAT Chinese companies against their government, which is absurd, plainly absurd. There cannot be any future if Europe is not integrated into this project and Canada is not a neutral place, or not more neutral than Luxemburg as for the European Community. We could of course also consider Lichtenstein or Andorra, why not Monaco. And there should be some kind of international regulating authority, but the future policy cannot be reduced, as it is page 240-242 to fifteen rules that have to be absolute, that are declared universal, like it or not, and that are expressed in a way or another as MUSTs and MUSTN’Ts, that is to say obligations and interdictions, but where is freedom in all that, where are HUMAN RIGHTS in all that when Western Human Rights become HUMAN OBLIGATIONS outside the West and even in the West for minorities like Muslims, Blacks or whatever minorities the West loves segregating against cyclically: Jews, Blacks, Muslims, Asians, and so many others, even LGBTQ people.

Diversity is the answer and I must say the West is not the best example of such diversity in many fields, even by the way the simple sexual diversity of women and men, not to speak of OTHER sexual identities. It is becoming common today in Europe to propose three answers to the question “Sex” or “Gender” if you prefer: MALE, FEMALE, OTHER/NON-SPECIFIED/PREFER-NOT-TO-SPECIFY. I am afraid we are still far from being able to consider such a procedure as universal in the world and it will take a lot of intelligence, human intelligence, and much internet-of-things to bring such a simple procedure to some kind of universality. Amy Webb alas, considers that a decree from the top, meaning the USA and at best the West can bring such values and procedures to any sustainable universality. I sure do not trust Google or Facebook to bring that up to any real existence. They might be dreaming of universality, but they certainly don’t consider sustainability as their target since their target is to make money, and more money and a lot more money. They might dream of themselves as universal and durable, but not sustainable, except in a perverse mismatch of the word sustainability and the meaning of greed.

Profile Image for Indra Nooyi.
Author 5 books16.5k followers
June 10, 2021
As the tech industry continues developing artificial intelligence for the benefit of society, we must consider AI’s potential to threaten individual privacy. “The Big Nine" is an important exploration of the benefits, risks, and responsibilities that come with AI.
Profile Image for Matt.
5 reviews4 followers
March 5, 2019
The future is really scary. Or it's kind of awesome. Or it's somewhere in between. The fact is, even futurists as smart as Amy Webb don't know for sure. But what Amy Webb does here is lay out how we got here, where we are, and some options of where we might be headed. She does so with an incredible amount of research, knowledge and foresight. And she does so with crisp, clear writing.

The important part is that she also lays out the questions we need to ask ourselves today and the questions we need to be asking our government and our corporations. There are issues we need to address if we want to avoid the scary outcomes and head for the awesome ones. There isn't much time to waste.

So get to reading. And get to asking.
Profile Image for Anthony.
104 reviews
August 9, 2019
I thought this book would cover something about the current state of AI in the "big nine" as well as China. Nope, the author doesn't know anything about what these companies are doing. Instead, this is another book which is better treated as a novel when she describes, at length, various future scenarios for AI. Her warnings appear to be two-fold: that AI development will be hamstrung by implicit biases by non-diverse developers (she seems to have particular concern that gender non-conforming people will be left out), and that China will control AI in the future. On the first, the problem is better described as AI that does not work for everyone, rather than describe it as a diversity problem. Even with diversity as usually described, there's still no guarantee that the AI will work as advertised. On the second, I do think she's correct that China poses a significant challenge to the West, and AI is only one of the battlefields. Unfortunately, her book really doesn't shed any light on current Chinese research (for my part, I'm going to improve my Mandarin). In sum, your time and money is better spent on other material.
Profile Image for Yoly.
539 reviews40 followers
July 18, 2019
The first part of the book feels very well researched and carefully written. Here the author gives us a somewhat brief history of AI and gives us some information about the Big Nine tech giants – Google, Amazon, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Facebook, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. If I had to rate only this section, I would give it five stars.

In the second part the author throws us three different scenarios: an optimistic one, a pragmatic one and a catastrophic one. These “scenarios” could’ve easily been a sci-fi novel (or a series of novels!). I’m sure I would enjoy reading a sci-fi story around these ideas. I was a little disappointed about this section since I came into this book looking for facts, not fiction.

In the third part she offers some recommendations and while I like some of her ideas, I think others are just not too practical to implement.

I agree with other reviewers who are saying the book is too US-centered and US biased. Sometimes it feels like there’s only United States and China is the big bad wolf.

Overall, I think this is a good book, it just wasn’t what I was expecting it to be.

+1 to the audiobook being narrated by the author.
Profile Image for Anna.
47 reviews1 follower
April 6, 2020
If you’re looking for an in-depth exploration of the Big Nine’s individual and collective policies and histories regarding artificial intelligence (AI), this probably isn’t the writing for you. If you’re looking for a data- and expert-driven exploration of the future of artificial intelligence… this still isn’t the book for you. Unfortunately, I was a bit let down by this book, which covers an ambitious topic but manages to do so only superficially and without a cohesive stance on the present and future of AI.

The writing in this book is clunky and rather formulaic (“First, I will discuss ABC. Then, XYZ. Finally…”), and, though its references and acknowledgements were extensive, rarely quoted experts or primary materials. This gave the whole book a school report feeling, where the writer cares and feels passionately about the topic but has ultimately provided only their own retellings of events and anecdotes and personal (re-)interpretations of the issue. Since the writing comes from someone with extensive experience in this area, its disappointing to see the topic covered in a manner that doesn’t stand up to critical thinking. This is especially regretful given the importance of the topic - which, to be fair, the author does manage to convey. I do appreciate that predicting the future isn’t an easy business, but I felt this book relied too much on speculation and a limited frame of reference.

My favorite part of the book was the summary of the history of AI. The author appropriately pointed out the limitations of a non-diverse group of experts determining the values and goals of AI, and describes the last 100-years or so of AI development in an engaging manner. The middle section of the book was where I really lost interest. The three middle chapters are devoted to speculative portrayals of futures in which a) we (primarily The Big Nine though) deal with AI correctly and we all live better, more stable lives, b) a more pragmatic, less interventionist approach is taken and we all end up living in constant 1984-esque dread of the Chinese government, and c) a more extreme version of this all going terribly wrong, in which “we” (the US and it’s allies - that’s another criticism of this book - it focuses a lot on the US/China binary and doesn’t acknowledge other potential players and newcomers in this space) all end up dying of Amazon-created injectable nanobots (yes, really) that have been re-engineered for genocide.

I can appreciate that given the existing scope of AI, this book attempts to explore future developments in varied areas (communication, health, dating, household appliances, and more). However, I think the argument could have been more effectively made by focusing on the areas in which there is already concern over control and privacy. Explaining to me how my personal data record could quite realistically (maybe already?) impact my finances, job, privacy, and health was cheapened by predicting that in ten years I will develop anxiety when my smart toothbrush glitches and doesn’t give me positive affirmations. The household appliance predictions really didn’t sit well with me, and perhaps reflect a bias in the author’s own experience. The author describes scenarios of being imprisoned in one’s own home through glitches and attacks on appliances and household technology. I’m inclined to think that if the road to a 1984 existence is paved by overpriced, glitchy household items. . . that road will not be well-travelled. The author suggests government subsidization of such infrastructure as the means by which it becomes universal, but discounts the tendency for people to find workarounds and abandon technologies which do not serve them.

Execution of the message aside, I do finish the first two sections of the book with an understanding of the importance of proactively addressing AI. To conclude, the author has provided an ideal set of tasks for government and industry to ensure that AI makes our lives better, not worse. I’m *sure* they will start being proactive as soon as this very predictable pandemic is over. As for the individual actions, the book contains nothing particularly new: review the settings on your accounts and devices, be aware of your own biases, and vote for competent leaders. Groundbreaking stuff.

And I haven’t even addressed how the author goes easy on The Big Nine’s missteps in this area, the lack of depth on the individual companies (I’ve already forgotten what Baidu and Tencent do), and the barely-discussed contradiction of how we must be proactive about AI but eschew regulation. Ultimately, this book has motivated me to learn more about AI, but I will do so by seeking out other materials.

(Physical Distancing Read #4)
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
935 reviews557 followers
February 18, 2020
This book provides a business person’s perspective on how AI might shape the world, and tells how the current power brokers will use their dominance for control. For me, there did not seem to be that much meat to the author’s overall narrative and her last half of the book were even more substance free with her scenario storytelling, that is, her narratives about her narratives seemed hollow and not actually particularly good scenarios at that.

Diversity is good and necessary for exploring and understanding the world. The author is good at defending its necessity. Facebook has problems, of which the author insinuates and then hypothesizes with her scenarios, and the People’s Republic of China has a different set of rules than in the USA or Europe, but you know, I would bet most of the readers of this book already know that. The author never entertains for a moment that breaking up the USA monopolies in any meaning full way is a potential rational way to help deal with the some of the potential problems she is warning about and that could help shape positively how the current power brokers will use their dominance for more than just exploitation. For example, Facebook never should have been allowed to buy WhatsApp to only bury it. The author did not mention that, but all her solutions seemed to be about maintaining the hegemony of the Big Nine.

Overall, I don’t think I found anything new for me in this book except at some unimportant superficial level about information about the companies under consideration. I always think it’s a fundamental mistake for an author to write a book about such an interesting topic as AI and its significance without having something to add that is not already generally known by those who are interested in the topic.

Profile Image for David.
3 reviews1 follower
May 10, 2019
Lots of fluff. US-centric and biased. Thinks the Chinese are hellbent on world domination.
4 reviews1 follower
February 13, 2020
A better subtitle would be: "How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp USA"

Before I present my criticism let me say that I really enjoyed the first part (out of three) of the book. The other parts, yikes... I picked it up in hopes of learning new arguments for why we should "regulate" (read change-our-mind-set-about) AI, I did not learn any new arguments but the book did present an excellent history of AI and the present problems.

If you are a white person living in the US (or any Westerner really) then this book is for you! If you are brown, black, red, green, or (god-forbid) yellow then this book will read more like politics than technology/philosophy/ethics. The audience of the book alternates between Humans and Americans.

I do not believe (nor even consider remotely) that the author is racist, but warning signs were raised while reading it. In the scenarios the author presents in the second part (guess what, the catastrophic scenario is caused directly by China) people of color are either victims or consumers of AI, the AI producers are The Big Nine, the Chinese government, the North American universities, and some US/European companies. The Middle East? Africa? South-America? They are reduced to consumers. It is up to the Westerners (as always) to save the day and create a global entity to guide the development of AI to keep at bay the Chinese values and encourage Western values. For example, the Chinese writing programs in chinese (1.116 billion people can read that) is unacceptable, while writing programs in English (1.132 billion) is the way to go (I personally had to learn English at some point in my life. I would love to program in Arabic). The Chinese, in the pragmatic scenario, become the colonizers and take over some African countries. The US military, in the conclusion, is to be trusted to continue its (unappointed) role of policing the world, while the Chinese military is to be feared. Both of which by the way submit to a single person; the president.

Overall I think the book does a better job at defending only one of its theses: it is hard to find bias and harder to remove it.
Profile Image for Dan J.
3 reviews
May 1, 2019
Interesting history of AI beginnings, current events, and future revelations. The history is not especially different than what most already know, but valuable to the novice reader. I think her description of the current state of the glass ceiling for women in tech is her next book.

The last section on future AI was a bit novelistic.
The big takeaway is that much of AI may be baked in without female representation, which may negatively affect us all. And AI is and will be used to manipulate everyone. This varies by country. There may be no escape without a global effort.
Profile Image for Trung Luong.
1 review
February 23, 2021
CEO Google Sundar Pichai có lần nói AI sẽ là breakthrough của loài người, impact hơn cả lửa hay điện. Ấy vậy mà có vẻ không mấy ai hiểu về công nghệ này. Thực ra cũng đúng, vì cũng chẳng mấy người quan tâm đến lửa hoặc điện hoạt động thế nào. Người ta chỉ xài thôi.

Nhưng AI thì khác, không như điện hoặc lửa, có nút bật tắt theo ý muốn. AI lại chẳng có công tắc nào, mà nó lại thay mình quyết định mọi thứ: xem gì, ăn gì, mua gì, đi đường nào, thậm chí ở Trung Quốc là để đánh “điểm xã hội” (không xã giao tốt thì khỏi mượn tiền or xin việc, nói cách khác là cạp đất mà ăn)... dựa vào điều mà nó nghĩ là tốt nhất.

À vậy ra mấu chốt là "điều mà nó nghĩ là tốt nhất" được quyết định thế nào, bởi những ai, bị chi phối bởi những định kiến gì? Những tưởng những suy nghĩ định kiến của các team làm việc trên product AI sẽ chi phối sản phẩm của họ (AI của Amazon sẽ khác Facebook hoặc khác Tencent..). Điều này không sai, nhưng câu chuyện không dừng ở đó, ở level cao hơn team là tổ chức, trên tổ chức là quốc gia. Nói cách khác thể chế chính trị, kinh tế, xã hội quyết định các định kiến AI quyết định các quyết định của người dùng.

Đặc biệt là, cuốn sách về công nghệ nhưng được viết bởi phụ nữ. Wait... mọi người thấy đó, bản thân câu này cũng mang nhiều định kiến, tại sao sách công nghệ được viết bởi phụ nữ là đặc biệt? Một người, một cách tự nhiên, luôn có định kiến, có thể tốt cho người này, và không tốt cho người kia. Không có con người không định kiến, thì AI cũng vậy.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 11 books295 followers
July 12, 2019
What. A. Book. Interested in artificial intelligence, technology, the way the future could be shaped by the intersection of the two? It’s coming — the future and the dominance of AI. But what does that mean? Webb not only provides detailed analysis, an impressive bibliography, and a history that’s multifaceted, but she also crafts storylines that support different decisions we could all make. Yes, us. You and me. Worth reading and rereading and taking action as a result!
Profile Image for Marius Greblikas.
159 reviews6 followers
June 9, 2019
Įdomi ateitis mūsų laukia. Tačiau “AI” yra daug arčiau nei mes galim įsivaizduoti. O ta galimybė pakliūti į Big Data spastus, kai nauja informacija yra pateikiama pagal tai kuo tu domėjaisi vakar, visiškai nedžiugina. Ši prolema jau stipriai jaučiasi google paieškoje, facebook sienoje ir t.t. O pabėgti iš šio užburto rato tikrai sunku :) ir be sąmoningų veiksmu nieko nepasieksi, o suksiesi kaip voverė vakar dienos duomenyse:(
Profile Image for Paul.
65 reviews8 followers
March 20, 2019
We’re on the cusp of an evolutionary moment for humankind – unleashing Artificial Intelligence forces that will fundamentally change the world and the way we live.

Big data analysis, pattern recognition and algorithmic decision-making will bring transformed energy use, efficient water consumption, improved traffic flows, better health care, smarter machines, lower costs, you name it.

The “thinking machines” tech is already scarily advanced – in some cases beyond the comprehension of its creators – and the use and abuse to which it can be put is alarming.

If Webb’s AI future-gazing sounds apocalyptic, it’s meant to, cataloging perils within this modern-day Pandora’s Box if ethical issues go unattended.

Malevolent forces always shadow well-intentioned scientific and technological advances and there are often unforeseen consequences too.

Webb presents her prognostications in three scenarios: optimistic, pragmatic and disastrous and poses the question: “What happens to society when we transfer power to a system built by a small group of people that is designed to make decisions for everyone?”

We already know the answers to some degree, but in these scenarios AI has inescapably wormed its way deeper and wider into the fabric of everyday life.

The US and China are the current superpowers of the AI world and they are used as exemplars of the good v evil outcomes that will result.

It’s a race, China is winning and unless the US gets its act together China will dominate the world economy, flex its economic muscle and practice a new form of colonialism.

By a combination of diplomacy, military might and infrastructure-building it spreads its ideology, extracts critical resources and locks out competitor nations – straight out of the American playbook, you might say.

Plausible though this view may be, the book is at its best when it moves away from global domination hypotheses and into the dominion of individual lives.

We already know our digital lives are monitored, our data scraped and the details sold to third parties. It’s then used in less than transparent ways for things we can’t easily uncover.

As Webb puts it: “If you are a Gmail user, Google – and by extension its AIs – knows you better than your spouse or partner.”

“It knows the names and e-mail addresses of everyone you talk to along with their demographic information…it knows what you search for…whether you’re miscarrying for the first time, learning to make paella, struggling with your sexual identity…considering giving up meat, or looking for a new job.”

This synthesis of such data gives a glimpse into what she believes will evolve into a “personal digital record” or PDR.

Beyond our digital footprints from internet and mobile use the PDR becomes a unifying ledger that includes sources such as school and work histories, details of diplomas, marriages, divorces, arrests, mortgages, credit scores, loans, health records, exercise habits, countries visited and shopping decisions.

In China that would include a “Social Credit Score,” the use of AI to create an obedient population harnessing Big Brother-type surveillance to punish miscreants and reward “heroic acts”.

Anti-social behavior has consequences: Drive through a red light and you not only get a ticket and a fine you also lose social credit points. Honk excessively and you’ll get an automatic ticket plus naming and shaming on LED billboard displays.

Lose enough social credit points and you may be banned from travelling on a high speed train, or any train, or travelling at all.

Whether AI is at the service of humanity, or Wall Street, or authoritarian rule will depend on answers to the many questions raised by this provocative vision of the future.
94 reviews
April 5, 2019
I like this book a lot. It has some good (if very selective) bits of history of the AI evolution. I appreciated the (realistic) scenarios presented, and the framework of principles for the continuing evolution of ANI into ASI.

I learned a lot.
Profile Image for Ricardo Acuña.
128 reviews13 followers
May 3, 2019
Most of the books nowadays about AI irruption focus on technology and job impacts, however this book from Amy Webb focus on AI GEOPOLITICS. You surely have heard that most analyst dramatically overestimate the applicability of AI or picture apocalyptic nightmares. This book goes different, raising a creative approach: an optimistic, a realistic and pessimistic scenario. The world map of geopolitics is the confrontation between two AI power nations: US and China. This is not new, most of the journals and articles, depicts it every day, and the book go deeper in this analysis, presenting how it is happening, where the things are going on and what are the possible outcome results. In a nutshell, imagine a world where China is the new superpower, backed by an AI technology dominance all over the world, mainly in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Where is from all this power emerges? From Data. From all of our own data in hands of the Big Nine tech titans from US and China. Amy Webb presents a detailed agenda of how AI is a key part of the China world dominance plan. AI is just a key and important part besides other strategic drivers: economical, technological and social.

Although it seems nice that most of us agree with the optimistic or real scenario, the truth is that given the current state of facts, we should probably go with the pessimistic scenario. Why?. If we still cannot integrate as humanity most of the more valuable human values like democracy, world ecology protection, poverty among others at geopolitical level along the history, why we should do it with AI?.

One of the most valuable key concepts that describes the book is the PDR (Personal Data Record). I definitely agree that we are going in this direction. Currently all of our personal information is disseminated among the big nine by the usage of web services: social networks, e-commerce, and cloud computing, and so on. But sooner or later it will be in the hands on government for good or bad, like it is already happening in China with the social score system. Is it a "black mirror" nightmare?, must probably yes, but it depends on the actions taken from now on by the big nine and other players, the governments and the countries all over the world. That’s what Amy Webb propose with a carefully detailed call to action plan in the last part of the book (too optimistic from my point of view).

Another key concept that call my attention is the possibility to treat AI like a new kind human being (Or thing). This is a subject that is attracting attention by several analysts and is an ethical paradigm, because AI is gradually permeating our day to day living, doing more than just repetitive tasks. AI is going deeper and deeper by interacting with our emotions, preferences, monitoring our health and even without getting notice, taking decisions on behalf of us. Does AI will be liable for decisions that impact health, injury consequences, emotional attachments, and many other human relationships or interactions?

Given that no one have a magic wand to forecast the future, I highlight the value of the book on the geopolitics dynamics that represents the AI future to humanity, more than on the precision of the future predictions. The present dynamics represents the path to future, and this is what we must keep an eye on. And for me this a valuable benefit to read this book.
Profile Image for Ramon.
105 reviews8 followers
April 16, 2022
Un magnífico ensayo sobre la evolución e implicaciones de la IA a través de la los nuevo gigantes tecnológicos. Las implicaciones éticas, de control, la propia evolución de la tecnología que solo empezamos a intuir las repercusiones que tendrá.

Una visión de diferentes escenarios de futuro algunos esperpénticos otros maravillosos.

Mis notas

En su forma más básica, la IA es un sistema que toma decisiones autónomas.
El problema que surge al investigar cómo piensan las máquinas y los humanos tiene que ver con el hecho de que la palabra “pensar” está estrechamente ligada a la palabra “mente”.
¿Qué es la conciencia? Según ambos diccionarios, es la capacidad para reconocer el entorno o la propia existencia.
Platón y Sócrates crearon el primer algoritmo. Dio pie a dos importantes ideas nuevas: que ciertos sistemas físicos pueden operar como un conjunto de reglas lógicas y que el pensamiento humano mismo podría ser un sistema simbólico.
Leibniz : Las máquinas nunca tendrían alma, pero algún día sería posible crear una máquina capaz de tener pensamiento lógico de nivel humano.
Shannon había descubierto que los ordenadores tenían dos niveles el físico (el contenedor) y el lógico (el código).
No puede existir un algoritmo que determine si una afirmación matemática arbitraria es verdadera o falsa.
El contenedor, el programa y los datos formaban parte de una entidad singular, no muy diferente de los humanos. Nosotros también tenemos un contenedor (nuestro cuerpo) , unos programas (las funciones celulares autónomas) y unos datos (el ADN combinado con información sensorial directa e indirecta).
En los grupos aislados , los sesgos cognitivos se magnifican, se arraigan aún más y pasan inadvrtidos para la conciencia.
Grito de guerra de la tribu IA : “Falla rápido y falla con frecuencia”.
Mantra: Créalo primero, pide perdón después.
Los niños en China comienzan a aprender habilidades en IA desde la escuela primaria.
En China, el gobierno ejerce el control sobre el grupo BAT. En Estados Unidos, la GMAFIA ejerce un poder y una influencia considerables sobre el gobierno.
En Silicon Valley, las startups que vlaen más de mil millones de dólares se llaman “unicornios”.
Apple quitó velocidad a sus viejos iPhones cuando salieron al mercado sus nuevos modelos.
Algunos principios publicados de Amazon:
“Los líderes comienzan con el cliente y trabajan para él. El objetivo de su trabajo es ganarse y conservar la confianza del cliente.
“Los líderes tienen estándares muy altos” que las personas ajenas a la compañía pueden considerar como “exageradamente altos”
“Muchas decisiones y acciones son reversibles y no requieren un estudio detallado. Valoramos la asunción de riesgos calculada”.
“Hacer más con menos. No damos puntos adicionales por aumentar fuerza laboral, el tamaño del presupuesto o los gastos fijos”.
Ley de Conway: En ausencia de reglas y de instrucciones precisas, las elecciones que hacen los equipos tienden a reflejar los valores implícitos de su tribu.
La paradoja del presente: Es algo que ocurre cuando damos por hecho automáticamente que nuestras circunstancias actuales no cambiarán ni pueden cambiar, incluso si tenemos frente a nosotros señales que apuntan a algo nuevo o diferente.
En lugar de entrenar a la IA para que tome decisiones absolutamente perfectas cada vez, se la entrena para optimizar determinados resultados.
Si sacamos la empatía del proceso de toma de decisiones, estaremos eliminando nuestra humanidad.
Desarrollo de una metodología para modelizar la incertidumbre:
Proceso de seis pasos.
Saca a la superficie las tendencias emergentes
Mapea sus trayectorias a lo largo del tiempo, describe resultados probables y, en última instancia, crea una estrategia para alcanzar un futuro buscado.
La primera mitad de la metodología explica el qué. La segunda mitad describe que pasaría si… ( planificación de escenarios ).
Los escenarios son una herramienta que nos ayuda a hacer frente al “descuido de la probabilidad”
El cerebro humano es malo para evaluar el riesgo y el peligro. Asumimos que las actividades comunes son más seguras que las actividades nuevas o poco comunes.
Los principios que deben regir la evolución de la IA:
La humanidad debe ser siempre el centro del desarrollo de la IA.
Los sistemas de IA deben ser seguros. Debemos estar capacitados para verificar de manera independiente su seguridad.
Los nueve gigantes deben priorizar la seguridad por encima de la velocidad.
Si un sistema IA causa daño debería poder informar y debería existir un proceso de control.
LA IA debe ser explicable.
Cualquier que este relacionada con la IA. Deben estar preparados para explicar las decisiones que han tomado durante las fases de desarrollo, prueba y despliegue.
El atlas de los valores humanos debe ser respetado en todos los proyectos de IA.
Debe existir un código de conducta publicado y fácil de encontrar.
Cualquier persona tiene derecho a interrogar a los sistemas de IA.
Los términos de servicio deben estar escritos en un lenguaje claro.
Los RDP (Perfiles de personas) deben ser opcionales; se deben desarrollar usando un formato estandarizado.
Los RDP deben estar lo más descentralizados posibles.
Los RDP deben ser protegidos de regímenes autoritarios.
Debe existir un sistema de responsabilidad pública y un método fácil que permita a las personas recibir respuestas a las preguntas relacionadas con sus datos y la forma como se extraen.
Todos los datos se deben tratar igual independientemente de nacionalidad, raza, religión , identidad sexual, género , afiliación política o cualquier otra creencia particular.
Demostramos una y otra vez que el dinero es lo único que nos importa, pues damos prioridad al crecimiento rápido y a los beneficios constantes, en lugar de priorizar una investigación básica y aplicada.
Los datos de entrenamiento pueden sufrir entropía, lo que puede poner en riesgo todo el sistema.
Profile Image for Mary.
258 reviews
April 4, 2019
My husband was thrilled with this book and plans to reread it. For me, it was a bit of a slog. I got bogged down in the technical details, was skeptical of the precise nature of the author's future forecasts, and thought the content was somewhat repetitious. Perhaps I was prejudiced by having first read Harari's "Homo Deus" which was also a forecast of the future and, in my opinion, a much more readable book. Still, if you are willing to put in the effort (and don't get easily depressed), you should read "The Big Nine."
Profile Image for Wendelle.
1,474 reviews12 followers
October 29, 2019
This is a bit of a weird book.
The author has great experience in the world she speaks of, she spent decades immersed in the rarefied world of AI conglomerates as a researcher. She is like an ethnographer of the AI industry.

The author protests too much that the tech titans, like Google and Facebook, are benign. she keeps repeating this point and offers as proof the fact that they belong in the general liberal-democratic sphere, in contrast to Chinese industries like Baidu and Tencent and the centralized-controlled world of AI development in China, which is held in a chokehold by the Chinese government and used for ever-greater surveillance of Chinese citizens and dissidents. That there is a gulflike disparity between these two hemispheres and the way they envision the future of AI cannot be denied. But surely we should expect more from Western tech titans if we are to declare them benevolent. The book sorta presents the tech titans as martyrs that deliver great benevolent gifts to mankind, but are 'hurt by a thousand cuts' from the general populace's expectations of speed, profitability, and zero-tolerance for error. it's a bit weird because these vastly profitable and emerging industries sorta make the rules and laws for themselves. That's how powerful and incomprehensible they are. Any such martyrdom to zero-tolerance for error should be understood as largely self-imposed within the capitalist system they are propping up, and the taxation systems and demonopolization policies they are resisting.

The book declares it's different from other books that merely repeat that AI is here to take our jobs, but the middle part of the book is comprised of rather scattered examples of how AI is overtaking our industries and our privacy, while the third part is a weird tangent into an imagined future where we depend on AI for the routines of our daily life.. this book is informative but I wouldn't say it's THE ultimate book to read to learn about the sociological implications of AI.
Profile Image for Steve Stanton.
Author 16 books31 followers
April 1, 2019
This scary book about AI is an important read for anyone who is interested in the future of the human race. This is no longer science fiction. We all use AI every day, and our personal data is mined every time we text or email or log in our global position by using a phone. We have given up our privacy for ease of communication and convenience in banking, but now machines are building better machines that operate above human understanding. What happens next? Noted international futurist Amy Webb has developed several scenarios that could lead to catastrophe if we do not take active measures to curtail the unbridled growth of computer intelligence and develop systems of recourse. There are only two countries vying for technological domination of the planet, China and USA. The Chinese government is leading the charge by far with a published mandate for global expansion and control, with ownership of more digital data than the rest of the world combined. The American government has pulled back from international outreach to build walls against former partners, leaving the tech giants of Silicon Valley on their own to fashion utopia. Both camps are working diligently for the good of humanity, but Amy Webb argues that unconscious cultural biases are inadvertently being built into the automated systems that regulate all aspects of life. In America, “good” means profit for shareholders, with a noted coding bias in favour of affluent white males, and citizens are financial resources to be used and abused. In China, “good” means useful to society, regardless of the suffering of the individual. In both cases, personal digital profiles are being compiled that are gaining importance for bank loans, education, and medical care. Chinese citizens are given by AI an overt social credit score that determines their caste in society. In other parts of the world, the automated “cultural harmony” ranking is more nebulous but growing influential. The author warns that your future access to communication and health services may depend on your compliance to a superintelligent machine made in China.
75 reviews2 followers
September 9, 2019
Predicting future is extremely hard work. No doubt technology companies have way too much hold over our lives already. And in the future with the advent of AI and machine learning it will only get stronger.
Keeping these things in mind - the author foresees three scenarios - good, average and bad for humanity. And none of them seem acceptable.

Fitness trackers reporting our daily activities to insurance companies which not only alter our insurance rates but also disable our connected-to-internet microwave when we try to make a popcorn, a car which receives updates from over-the-air internet won't start because we didn't meet our daily 10k steps average - are all part of a dystopian future.

In reality things may turn out to be slightly different but I laud the author's informative and reasonable approach to build her case. Clearly there is a dire need to talk about how data collected through apps, and internet is going to be used and sold, there are no agreed upon ethical norms for how Artificial Intelligence is going to be applied. No internationally recognized consortium like the one we have our nuclear weapons. Clearly the Big Nine companies are going to lay down the terms of the AI powered world and they have also become too big and wieldy that it may be too late to break them up.

I also liked the initial part where she devoted some part to the philosophical question if machines have a conscience, can they they think for their own.

It is a very good, interesting read for anyone who wonders about how the future powered by Tech would look like.
Profile Image for Don.
827 reviews38 followers
September 29, 2019
This falls into a book that I feel is difficult to rate on Goodreads. In many respects, it was just okay; as I discuss below, there were certain aspects of the book that I found lacking. On the other hand, it was informative and challenging, and certainly worthwhile. Balancing those two sides of the read makes me default to the 3 of 5 stars ranking.

As the subtitle of the book suggests, the book looks at the rise of the so called "Big Nine" - Apple, Amazon, Google, IBM, Facebook, and Microsoft in the United States and Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba in China. These nine companies are at the center of our world's usage of technology and likely at the forefront of the future of computing, specifically artificial intelligence (AI). Webb's detail of these companies philosophies to date, couple with an overarching brief history of AI - from conception to reality and application - is a real strength of the book.

In this early section of the book, two things stick with me. First, the discussion of China's social credit system, and the technology to implement it via Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba; and then how China is exporting that technology. I've read my share of dystopian novels, and the implementation of this social credit system, the technology used, and its potential is every bit dystopian as any novel. Second, particularly in the West but also in China, how the development of AI is impacted, even hindered in many respects, by the biases of the people in the room creating it (predominantly white males in the West, and ethnic Chinese in China. I think we often have a belief that computers and technology is impartial with a lack of biases; but Webb explains and shows how the technology does not always escape the prejudices of its creators.

The part of the book that I had trouble with was the second half, where Webb discusses what she sees as potential scenarios for our future with AI. She refers to these as the "optimistic scenario," the "pragmatic scenario," and a pessimistic scenario. The problem, for me, is that these scenarios, in terms of their outcomes, have much less in how the "problem" of AI is dealt with, and more about the geo-politics of who gets to control the future - the United States or China. Certainly, I agree with Webb that China's values, exported on a global scale, is not good. But I guess I wanted the book to look at scenarios strictly on how we can re-evaluate how AI is considered and used (if at all) - what is the ethics of that, which Webb discusses in the first half of the book - as opposed to boiling everything down to a dichotomy of political will power between the U.S. system and the Chinese system. Also, in the context of these future scenarios relying so heavily on political outcomes for what happens in the future, it was noticeable to me that the issues of climate change as well as any super anti-biotic resistant viruses were not mentioned in the optimistic scenario, just the other two (perhaps an assumed premise that AI would just solve those issues, which I don't think there is any evidence to draw that conclusion, as of yet).

But these quibbles come because the book is challenging, and in many respects, that makes it worthwhile. Not every book one reads should always reflect ideas and philosophies the reader already agrees with; for me, I found much in this book I found dubious. But it challenged me, it forced me to think, and will continue to make me think. For that, I am grateful I chose to read it.
Profile Image for Andres Restrepo Sánchez.
7 reviews3 followers
May 1, 2021
En este libro, Amy Webb describe la IA y el papel de todos los grupos de interés involucrados: personas naturales, científicos de datos, gobiernos/estados, y sector privado enfatizando en los 9 gigantes tecnológicos de la actualidad.

Me parece que su descripción de los 9 gigantes deja por fuera el desarrollo de la IA en el resto de la economía y en sectores con avances muy grandes (cómo el financiero), donde seguro existirán impactos muy importantes.

El análisis que hace de los posibles escenarios, si bien incluye posibilidades muy cercanas o incluso hoy materializadas, parece estar más orientado al propósito comercial del libro que a la verdadera pedagogía o el debate.

A pesar de lo anterior, definitivamente se tratan temas profundos y de relevancia global como la gestión y el gobierno de datos personales, la necesidad de los gobiernos/estados de involucrarse activamente en el desarrollo de la IA (cómo ya sucede en algunos países), los sesgos personales que pueden afectar el curso de los desarrollos de IA actuales, y el deber de todos los involucrados en el tema por hacer de la ética una parte fundamental de la IA.

Es un buen libro para leer con mirada crítica, pero valorando los cuestionamientos que hace.
Profile Image for Malin Näfstadius.
206 reviews20 followers
June 1, 2019
5 stars because this is the book we all need to read, since it's already too late to opt out of a future with AI.
The author outlines the major risks that threaten to lead us down a path where our technology no longer gives us ease, but instead increasing amounts of "paper cuts" that eventually turns into a surveillance nightmare: basically bias, transparency and money.

Bias for so many reasons, like that the vast majority of developers are, in US, white male seculars with liberal inclinations, and in China, Chinese (mostly) male controlled by the long term plans of the CCP. These people attend the same universities and the same classes, where they already form tribes whose values they bring with them when they enter their careers in one of The Big Nine (Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent). This is an issue because these tribes program AI with the same unintended biases they themselves have, and since AI is to predict human thoughts, interact like humans, and eventually more and more to nudge humans to act in certain ways. Without diversity in gender, ethnicity, religion etc, we are all heading for a steep decrease in acceptance for and lack of understanding of minorities (or the rough half female part of the world's population). There is also a near total lack of cross-disciplinary studies in the university breeding grounds of the next generation of developers. Except for one meagre compulsory ethics class there is zero incentive to study anything but technical skills (since the AI that sorts through job applications isn't trained to notice anything but that). But if they are those we must trust to form systems that are designed to think like us, how are they meant to recemble humans if they know nothing of the perspectives we get from philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, political science, arts, crafts, economics etc.? All of those things are part of who we are (even though many leaders now think of arts and "soft skills" as just a waste of time and money), or perhaps soon of what we were...

Transparency because, well we all know why transparency is important by now, but that doesn't make us stop uploading photos or sharing personal information. It could be a positive thing that we lend our faces and data to AI, because the larger amounts it has access to the better it can train itself. But who owns this data later, and will we be able to opt out of things that we feel restricts our lives more than they help? (Nightmare that the connected freezer might be automatically locked if our health data says we didn't exercise enough to be allowed ice cream)

Money, because the part of the Big Nine that are based in US at this stage is so dependent on share holder and consumer expectations that there is no room for predicting long-term consequences. If the state was to fund basic research they would have room for other things than just short-term profits. As for China the state does fund research, but the goals of Beijing do not align with many of the values we take for granted in the West, like human rights and privacy. Therefore it's even more important that US and EU fund adopt a comprehensive, clear plan of cooperation instead of capitalist competition between states and the developing companies. We can't afford not to stand together, and China will overtake us if we don't.

The solutions presented here are varying in their feasibility. The bias of the tribes of the Big Nine could certainly be amended with a more conscious recruitment process and efforts at promoting hybrid degrees at universities etc.

The transparency would benefit if all Big Nine, or at least the ones in US and EU, could work together, states and companies, rather than compete and lock our data into their respective frameworks (I certainly have screamed in frustration when switching from Apple to Android and trying to get access to my data, so I understand that it discourages many to try, which effectively lock us in). If we could own our data ourselves, and decide on how much to share (and have 'terms of use' that were easier to read and understand) the risks of that it is used in ways that harms would decrease. But to ask that of the companies is like asking for a revision of the capitalist philosophy that has governed the West for centuries. Even if they pride themselves of being different, progressive and out to benefit human societies, I just can't see it in the cards. Much because the governments that could provide the framework for that just has no interest in backing them up. Status quo looks ok at the moment, if you are myopic (and more and more of us are, literally), and very profitable in the short term, and especially the current leadership in US has no record of planning for an innovative future, rather the opposite.

But to convince Capitol Hill still sounds more plausible than Webb's final thoughts on how to deal with the future in China. That she suggests that those working with AI there themselves should take a stand against the CCP's surveillance expansionism sounds like she's asking them to go on suicide missions against a social credit system that they themselves have helped creating and know better than anyone what consequences would land on their lives and lives of families and friends.

As a rather staunch tech-sceptic I was horrified even of the most optimistic of the three future scenarios that Webb outlines in the final part of the book (like parts of our medical records being weighed in dating apps so that others can choose the optimal partner for procreation) I couldn't think of anything worse than having a voice assistant connecting to all parts of my home, even if it left the lock off the freezer. But I belong to a generation that still remembers a manual lifestyle, and I realize that those that are born now might not even care if they are chatting to an AI or a real person. Perhaps the only way is to embrace that vision, and then, as long as more futurologists haven't offered alternative visions, this plan of action needs to seep into minds everywhere
49 reviews7 followers
June 8, 2019
I stumbled upon this book on Amazon when I saw it among the top books in Artificial Intelligence. I was exploring this topic for finding good coding books on the subject. I have always been interested in knowing more about AI ever since it got into prominence and increasing use in the past few years. I believe that Google is the organization that has contributed the most to the third wave of AI (as the author mentions in the book). This wave may persist unlike its predecessors, which fizzled out due to a lack of meaningful output. Today we are seeing many practical and useful examples where AI is being used. Self-driving cars, personal assistants are just two examples that are most visible or talked about. But AI has the power to pervade much deeply into our every day lives. Without us knowing it, we have unconsciously become both the trainers and the users of these ground-breaking technologies. Don't believe me? Think of the various ways that you have contributed to Google and other companies using the data provided by you for improving their AI offerings. Captcha, social media hashtags, Google Photos image recognition, are all examples where our data is being used for training their AI algorithms in the hope of improving them so that they can classify us and target us even better in the future. And don't even get me started on Facebook. The least ethical of the lot, Facebook has a lot to answer for. But as the author mentions, it has become a trend for all these nine companies to move ahead with their plans first and then apologise for any infractions on user privacy or security.

So AI has the potential to both improve our lives and help build a better future as well as to invade every aspect of our life and make us completely dependent on a select few global entities who will nudge our lives into paths they find the most profitable. And that is what is satisfying about this book. It explores both the extreme cases, where AI will become a true ally to our future selves or become a dictatorial entity guiding our every action.

According to the book there are only two countries that are leading the race as far as AI is concerned - US and China. And it is no surprise. Both these countries also occupy the centre stage in world trade and diplomatic affairs. But what is scary is the different paths that both these countries have adopted in improving their AI. While the US has a capitalistic model to it, with each of the six big names in AI doing their research in private labs and using that to improve the top and bottom line, China has a more nationalistic goal in pursuing AI. In its quest to become the leader in trade and global politics, the CPC (Communist Party of China) has adopted the development of AI in its growth manifesto. Xi Jinping has left no stone unturned in encouraging the three Chinese companies that lead the way in AI - Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. The BAT companies as the author puts it. The book explains how if left unchecked by the US, China can leap forward the rest of the world by becoming a leader in AI along with its other physical intrusions into the trade networks of smaller and weaker countries, notably through its grand Belt and Road Initiative.

Amy Webb touches upon a lot of humanistic issues in the book as well. As with any capitalistic corporate entity, it would be naive to expect them to look at the human side of business. But with AI it becomes all the more imperative because the kind of values that we put into these initial models will decide to a great extent the kind of path the AI supercomputers will follow in the future. Already there have been cases where AI algorithms have been biased in terms of gender or race due to the faulty data set that they were provided during their initial training phase. Hence in this inevitable move towards more powerful and faster computers, ensuring that these "intelligent creatures" do not become antagonistic to humanity becomes a valid point. And it has to be done now instead of later.

The Big Nine is a highly fascinating look at the development of AI in today's world. The author explores in depth the American context but I would have liked more information about the path that the BAT companies are taking as well. But as is expected, digging deep into the opaque Chinese business environment would be much harder, due to the absence of user privacy or ethical laws there.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to understand what AI is, what has been its history, and where we are heading in the future. As with any rapidly evolving technology, it is near impossible to predict the exact path that the technology would follow. But the author does a very good job in exploring the three possibilities of where the world might be - with respect to Artificial Intelligence. And as the author mentions, it would be well for the world to find itself at the most optimistic and progressive scenario. However to reach there, the world needs to start preparing now.

Luckily there has been a lot of debate among business leaders as to whether AI is a benevolent technology or a maleficent one. There have been strong arguments on both sides as well. It is good that healthy debates have surfaced even if in brief spurts. This is the right time to build a framework around the regulation or atleast the structure and ethics of building powerful AI systems. The US government needs to play a major role in this. Postponing this for the future would be a big mistake, especially if the machines suddenly decide to become sentient one day. Worse still, if at that time John Connor is nowhere to be found.

Read this and more of our reviews at Few Pages More
Profile Image for Maddie.
Author 1 book12 followers
January 24, 2022
You had me at the engaging history and modern issues with the development of AI, lost me with the sensationalist scenarios and the solutions for them. Especially since the majority of the solutions presented relied on selling the "optimistic" scenario for AI's impact and I thought the optimistic scenario was a nightmare. So. Didn't really want to involve myself with creating that scenario.

But still, there's a lot of really well done research in this book and really shifted my perspective on a lot of things regarding the internet and AI. I do think it gives consumers more credit than likely deserved regarding the population's general tech literacy and understanding. It's a great perspective if you're interested in technology, the development of it, and how it may eventually impact our futures.
Profile Image for Nick.
Author 21 books97 followers
May 15, 2019
Webb rehearses the history of AI and explains how far it has progressed today in order to set up three possible future scenarios, which she calls optimistic, pragmatic, and catastrophic. The optimistic scenario is very Jetsons: all the tech titans and their spinoffs and their machines and software work together to give us delightful choices, harmonious work, surroundings, and lives. Possible even very safe sex. The catastrophic scenario is totalitarian, inhuman, and ugly. Webb believes that unless we start to take steps now to ensure that the future turns out the way we want it to, we will end up with the catastrophic scenario. In fact, she rates the odds at 70% for catastrophe. This is a very measured, sane argument by a brilliant thinker. If the book doesn't scare you, then you're not awake.
Profile Image for Eric Abell.
33 reviews3 followers
June 2, 2019
I'm still processing much of what this book presents. I like Amy Webb's style. She presents clear and cohesive arguments about a subject that could easily turn into an unreadable PhD thesis. This book is both easily accessible for folks not familiar with the subject of AI and presents some real questions that even the most seasoned AI expert needs to consider carefully.
I've always found it difficult to avoid the catastrophe bias and look at the way things are heading and think to myself that things are only going to get worse. That may be true, but one of the things I also like about this book is the clear and concrete things that the author offers.
It won't be easy, but we can put AI development on a better path than it is today. I can only hope that we do it before it is too late.
453 reviews2 followers
December 12, 2019
I was captivated by the first chapters, struggled through the next few, and gave up halfway. This "book" could have been a meaty article or even a series; the wealth of experience and anecdote certainly supports the author's thesis, but for me, it was clutter without further insight. I really didn't need to be told more than I needed to know or had already inferred. Undoubtedly we USers are in for some trouble because we have delegated the development of AI to huge multinationals whose only true motivation is profit. There; said it in a sentence. The insight into the Chinese uses of AI and the hints that their tech is going to be adopted by the international police state is also unsettling and likely inevitable.
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