Skip to main content

Life 3.0 - Max Tegmark ***

I have to confess that my first reaction to this book was not anything to do with the contents, but trying to work out if there was something really clever about the the way the book's title is printed on the spine in white on cream, so it's illegible - would it be, for example, a subtle test of human versus artificial intelligence (AI)? However, that was just a distraction.

Max Tegmark is an interesting and provocative thinker in the physics arena, so I had high hopes for what he'd come up with exploring the future of AI and its relationship to human beings. It's worth explaining that the title of the book refers to three 'levels' of life where 1.0 is 'can survive and replicate' (e.g. bacteria), 2.0 is can design its own software (e.g. us - where 'software' refers to our concepts, ideas and extended abilities such as language) and 3.0 is can design its own hardware, enabling it to transform itself more directly and quickly than our creativity enables us to do.

The book starts with a bit of fiction, which I'm usually nervous about, but it actually works very well, as it's presented more like a non-fiction description of a business development rather than attempting all the quirks of fiction. In it we have a semi-plausible description of how a company that succeeds in producing a self-enhancing AI could take over the world. And this is genuinely thought-provoking.

So, early on, I was convinced I was going to love this book. But unfortunately there is an awful lot of futurology in here (aka guesswork) and like all futurology, Tegmark's can be frustratingly specific about things that we are highly unlikely to be able to predict - though at least he recognises this is the case and points it out. He covers the various ways a super-intelligent AI could develop, whether it would become a rogue, how we'd interact with it... and then plunges on into more and more dramatic speculation, including a chapter that looks forward 'the next billion years and more.' Forgive me for feeling a bit 'So what?' about this.

There is no doubt the whole business of super-AIs is an issue that needs thinking about and discussing - and Tegmark does this in an approachable and engaging fashion. It probably needs reading alongside Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence to get a well-rounded picture, though. It would have helped if it had been significantly shorter - it came across as being long because it was the kind of 'big book' that has to be chunky, and I think it would have been a lot more effective at half its length. One particular section that was ripe for trimming had a long list of scenarios, each of which was then worked through - dull reading, I'm afraid. 

In the end futurology is a bit like being told about someone else's dream. It probably seems fascinating to them, but it's hard to get too excited about it as a reader. Life 3.0 is an interesting book, but feels rather like a pet project, rather than a strong popular science title.


Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…