The Big Nine by Amy Webb – Book Review

5 min read

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 un-turned 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.