cover image Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots

Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots

John Markoff. HarperCollins, $26.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-226668-2

“Loving grace” may be an alternative to relentless usurpation, according to this conflicted examination of the looming robot takeover. New York Times journalist Markoff (What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer) considers the prospects of mass unemployment and human obsolescence from rapidly accelerating automation of labor, and suggests that we have a choice between the warring engineering strategies of “intelligence augmentation” that empowers the human mind and “artificial intelligence” that replaces it. (It’s the distinction, he contends, between Google’s user-friendly search engine and its user-sidelining driverless cars.) He follows this counterpoint through a detailed, engrossing history of robotics that takes in both the technical challenges—getting machines to identify shapes, navigate landscapes, heft boxes, parse legal documents, and perform surgery—and the design philosophies motivating researchers. Markoff’s lives-of-the-roboticists approach emphasizes “human decisions of engineers and scientists” in crafting automation that we can live with, yet this hopeful perspective can seem muddled and evasive: the advances he describes are clearly intended to marginalize and eliminate human labor, with little thought given to social consequences. This revealing look at profound technological and economic developments will unsettle anyone who has a job to lose. Photos. (Aug.)