A Thinker’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence

I just finished reading the book about Artificial Intelligence (AI) that I’ve been craving for years: Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans, by Melanie Mitchell. More than any other book on this hot but largely misunderstood topic, this book describes AI in clear and accessible terms. It cuts through the hype to present a sane assessment with no agenda apart from a desire to inform. Reading this book, you’ll likely discover that AI is quite different from what you imagined.

Melanie Mitchell qualifies as a second-generation pioneer in the field of AI. Beginning in the mid-1980s she earned her Ph.D. in the field under the supervision of Douglas Hofstadter, the previous generation pioneer whose book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid inspired many to pursue AI. She continues to do research and development in AI as a professor at Portland State University and at the Santa Fe Institute. I’d wager that few people, if any, understand AI in general better than she does. In this book she explains what AI is, covers its history from inception through today, describes the approaches that have been pursued (symbolic AI, neural networks, machine learning, etc., including explanations for how these approaches work), and presents the strengths and limitations of AI in unvarnished terms. She does all of this with a practical eloquence that is rare among technology writers.

Should we be concerned about AI? You bet, but probably not for the reasons that you imagine. AI has never exhibited anything that qualifies as general intelligence (i.e., thinking as humans do), despite years of diligent effort. Will it ever? Nobody knows. In the meantime, however, we do know that computers can perform “narrow AI” tasks that are quite helpful. We should make sure that AI is only applied in ways that are truly useful and understood. If we can’t understand how AI’s results are produced, we can’t trust those results. We must also make sure that AI applications are designed in ways that are both effective and ethical. Current applications exhibit worrisome flaws. As AI researcher Pedro Domingos has said: “People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.” I agree. We can and should produce better, more useful AI technologies. Knowing that people like Melanie Mitchell are involved in the effort gives me hope—a glimmer, at least—that we just might head in that direction.

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