The Hitchhikers Guide To AI by Arthur Goldstuck
The Hitchhikers Guide To AI by Arthur Goldstuck
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Back in the mists of the 1970s we had a memorable setwork in English at school. It was a book called The Stars & Under, a collection of science fiction stories edited by one Edmund Crispin and published by Faber. We didn’t realise it then, but looking at the contents list now I see it was a lineup of some of the greatest SF writers: Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, et al. These stories captured our febrile teenaged minds — indeed, SF traditionally appeals to young readers because they still have a sense of wonder and the imagination to see beyond what they are being taught is possible.

One of those stories has stayed with me, an admirably succinct entry titled Answer by the US writer Fredric Brown. It is just a page long and packs a punch. A scientist is ceremoniously turning on the greatest computer ever made: “The switch would connect, all at once, all of the monster computing machines of all the populated planets in the universe — ninety-six billion planets — into the supercircuit that would connect them all into one supercalculator, one cybernetics machine that would combine the knowledge of all the galaxies.”

The scientist gets to ask the computer the first question. “Is there a God?” he asks. The answer is instantaneous: “Yes, now there is a God.” It blew our shaggy-dog hairdos back. I was reminded of this story while reading Steven Boykey Sidley’s recent article in the Daily Maverick about AI. Sidley is a prolific author and something of a crypto and AI savant, with an acute understanding of current technologies and their impact. He points out that AI is the most important new technological wave in history, in the league of the advent of fire, the wheel, electricity, the Internet, and so on.

Unlike those, however, AI is developing at breakneck speed. “We will watch it unfold in real time,” he writes, and quotes the eminent computer scientist Yann LeCun: “Our entire information diet is going to be mediated by AI systems — they will constitute the repository of all human knowledge.”

Here, then, is Fredric Brown’s dreaded cybernetics machine. Now there is a god. For many, the speed at which AI is moving is bewildering, even frightening. Enter Arthur Goldstuck, another new-technology seer, with a practical bent. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AI (Macmillan), Goldstuck sets out to explain in an affable, accessible way the past, present, and future of AI. He emphasises its power for good and its impressive benefits for businesses and professionals, such as lawyers using it to write complex contracts or engineers optimising designs. He explains machine learning and reassures you that your phone is not “listening” to you — rather, the apps in it are learning from your behaviour and aligning with your evolving taste.

AI taking over
AI taking over
Image: Steve Johnson / Unsplash

When it comes to creative writing, AI is an excellent proofreader, but it lacks imagination and cannot capture the depth of human emotion and nuanced storytelling. He demonstrates how to get the best results by presenting the best prompts. “AI is stupid,” he explains, “so be its brain.” We all know of — and millions use — so-called fitness wearables such as Fitbit and Amazfit, which have revolutionised personal health tracking.

But AI is also being used to improve the country’s rural health systems by accelerating the diagnostic process, for instance. As far as AI in medicine goes, in the near future there will be robot-assisted surgeries, new drug discoveries and development, and virtual health assistants. Imagine Transnet transformed by AI systems that turn our ports into thriving hubs like Rotterdam, and our manufacturing processes sped up and smoothed out for maximum production.

Jobs are not necessarily being lost to technology, Goldstuck explains; rather, we will see a process called labour switching. As organisations embrace and adopt robotics and AI, jobs will be redesigned, creating new categories of work. Humans will be freed up for problem-solving and creating new knowledge. It makes for exhilarating reading. There is no doubt that we are watching AI evolve in real time, and in a couple of years Goldstuck’s book will be overtaken. But for now, it is an invaluable handbook to get us on and up the ladder of understanding the technology.  

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