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 God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …