The Fourth Age

The Fourth Age

Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity

In his new book The Fourth Age, GigaOm’s Byron Reese brings a refreshingly human perspective to the exponential technologies that are converging, if not conspiring, to usher in a new socio-industrial paradigm. While the subject matter is fascinating in its own right, it is Reese’s insightful and thoughtful approach to the topic that makes the book such a compelling read.

At the heart of his method is a series of questions—questions that take us from the philosophical debates about the nature of humanity (Is man just a machine?) to the wide-ranging social implications of the Fourth Age’s key enablers: robotics and artificial intelligence (Can a computer have consciousness?).

Byron Reese The Fourth AgeIn laying out the book’s framework, Reese walks us through the first three Ages (spanning language and fire to agriculture and cities to writing and wheels) to the present hinge of history: the advent of intelligent robotics. Having established the historical and metaphysical contexts, Reese then cuts to the chase with the one burning question on everybody’s mind: will robots take all our jobs?

Rhetorical or not, it is the question lighting up the media coverage of this topic, which is  invariably sprinkled with celebrity-issued warnings about the existential threat AI poses to humanity. Reese, however, brings his considerable critical thinking chops to the question, boiling the issue down to the three possible outcomes: AI-driven robots will either take 1) all of the jobs, 2) some of the jobs, or 3) none of the jobs.

While these three possibilities might sound obvious or even simplistic, it turns out that the arguments behind each of them—contrary as they may be to one another—can actually be quite convincing. Reese’s in-depth analysis of each position, though, leads us out of the quagmire and into the daylight of reason.

That said, there is much that is counterintuitive about his conclusions. And that’s where the book’s thesis—and value—really comes to the fore. To cite just one example, Reese notes the prevailing opinion that it will be low-skilled jobs that fall first to automation. “The assumptions,” he says, “that low-skilled workers will be the first to go and that there won’t be enough jobs for them undoubtedly have some truth to them, but they require some qualification. Generally speaking, when scoring jobs for how likely they are to be replaced by automation, the lower the wage a job pays, the higher the chance it will be automated. The inference usually drawn from this phenomenon is that a low-wage job is a low-skill job.”

Yet, as Reese points out, this is not always the case. “From a robot’s point of view,” he continues, “which of these jobs requires more skill: a waiter or a highly trained radiologist who interprets CT scans? A waiter, hands down. It requires hundreds of skills, from spotting rancid meat to cleaning up baby vomit. But because we take all those things for granted, we don’t think they are all that hard. To a robot, the radiologist job, by comparison, is a cakewalk. It is just data in, probabilities out.”

Indeed, as David Hanson (of Sophia the robot fame) observes, “There’s a certain expression of genius to be able to get up and cross the room and pour yourself a cup of coffee.”

Which brings us to the long pole in the AI tent. The evolution from narrow AI (application-specific functions of AI (think chess, AlphaGo, and cat pictures)—to AGI (artificial “general” intelligence), otherwise known as AI’s singularity event, involves a massive leap. There is, in fact, no consensus on when AGI will occur, let alone if it will occur. Regardless, its mere potential is driving not only the media, summer blockbusters, and venture investments, but public policy. Indeed, the scarier ramifications of AI are deep and wide, if not at times entirely unrealistic.

In the end, Reese’s arguments lead us to solid high ground that affords an appropriately optimistic (and decidedly not techno-utopian) outlook. Reinforced by his faith in mankind—and the belief that technological progress will lead to a grand flourishing of human potential and expression—he rightly concludes that there will be more than enough room on the planet for robots, AI, and us biological units. “Each new age of humanity,” Reese reminds us, “is triggered by one or more new technologies. These technologies are so transformative that they change our entire species, right down to our physical bodies. And so altered, humanity sets off in a new and entirely unexpected direction.”

To these ends, The Fourth Age will prove an indispensable guide for understanding and successfully navigating those new directions. In the meantime, if you’re curious about the impact that robots and AI might have on your job prospects, you can learn more here: