156. Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff

I saw the title “Machines of Loving Grace” didn’t know what it meant, but felt intrigued. Flipped to the back and saw “intelligent machines” and knew immediately that I want to read this book on Artificial Intelligence. Written by John Markoff, I expected to be enlightened into the latest developments in the field, the implications it will have on the job force, and some dooms day predictions etc.

All I was left with a look back in the past than forward.

Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff is the perfect book for AI purists who want to know about the early pioneers in the field, the constant struggle between the Intelligence Augmentation(IA) VS Artificial Intelligence(AI) camps, the brains that laid the foundation of the Silicon Valley and more.

“It is not enough to make a profit, or to create something that is beautiful. It has to have an impact. It has to be something that goes under 95 percent of the world’s Christmas trees, or offers clean water or electricity to billions of people.”

This book goes all the way back to 1950s with mentions of researchers who already made predictions for the way AI will affect the society. And while in the beginning I felt I was reading a horror story because I lean towards the IA camp, and thus AI doesn’t seem the knight in shining armor in my eyes as many scientists claim it to be.

By the end I sort of just accepted it once and for all (even though that won’t change a thing) and started looking more closely into the ways AI can actually be used for humanity.

“The separation of the fields of AI and human-computer interaction, or HCI, is partly a question of approach, but it’s also an ethical stance about designing humans either into or out of the systems we create.”

Rather the other way around…

As a computer science graduate, I remember sitting in my AI class and our professor talking about strong and Weak AI.

Weak AI means that machines can mimic or simulate human like intelligence.

On the other hand, Strong AI machines would be those that sentient, self aware and their own beings.

Now many Sci-Fi movies like Her, Blade Runner, I, Robot and more have depicted a dystopian world where machines ultimately control us, and this prediction isn’t wrong. Although, religiously I don’t believe Strong AI can ever happen where machines become sentient like humans.

However weak AI machines can become powerful enough to control us so much that we ending serving them rather the other way around.

“There is a fundamental distinction, however, between approaches to designing technology to benefit humans and designing technology as an end in itself. Today, that distinction is expressed in whether increasingly capable computers, software, and robots are designed to assist human users or to replace them.”

Because that is the main argument that the AI community makes! They aim at creating machines that will take over all the mundane, drudgery, repetitive tasks that stop humans from their creativity and enjoying life. With many AI enabled assistants, data aggregating applications that we use are they truly making us happy or just more unhappy, insecure, and in always in competition?

“What will happen if our labor is no longer needed? If jobs for warehouse workers, garbage collectors, doctors, lawyers, and journalists are displaced by technology?”

Nonetheless, the book continuously moves back and forth on this notion, never giving a definitive answer, while going over the folklore of the Silicon Valley and it’s beginning. There are many leading researchers that are mentioned including Alan Kay, Adam Cheyer, Andrew Ng, Marvin Minsky, Douglas Engelbart and more.

Plus there is a lot of mention about the research labs at Stanford, MiT, Carnegie Mellon, and the many DARPA challenges, and how military funding has influenced the research done in AI. Machines of Loving Grace is perfect for any and all bookworms who revere the field of AI, and want to know more about the faces behind this dazzling and ever evolving field.

I don’t know why I struggled reading this book, but somehow I feel the author only focused on the contributions made my researchers and developers from America even though a lot of research has been made in South Korea, Japan and even Russia.

Similarly, this read more of a glorification for the Silicon Valley and the people who’re in the big companies over there, and portraying them “holier than thou”. There is a lot of Bad Blood(no pun intended – but check that book out too) and a darker side to the Silicon Valley hacker/counterculture.

Nonetheless, I don’t think  I’ll be re-reading this anytime again…

On the basics:

  1. Rating: 3.0/5.
  2. Favorite quote: “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing
  3. Reader level: Easy
  4. Should you read: If you’re interested in the world of AI and the latest advancements.
  5. Would I read it again: Nope, kinda out dated.


Good luck!

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