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29 January 2023

The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler

This is a fun new novel. Like Ted Chiang’s Arrival or Carl Sagan’s Contact, it’s a “first contact” story, except the alien intelligence is homegrown: a newly-evolved species of octopus living in waters of the Con Dao archipelago in near-future Vietnam. How do they think, given their radically different bodies, environments, and umwelt? Many of the things I’ve been reading over the past few years (Ed Yong’s An Immense World, …


17 February 2020

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

This is the second novel in Chambers’ Wayfarers science fiction series, but it’s very different in plot structure from the first, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which I reviewed a couple weeks back. In this sequel, two of the characters from the first book, one minor and one major (but with her memory wiped clean), settle into a comfortable galactic backwater. As the novel unfolds, the backstory …


10 February 2020

The Pentagon’s Brain, by Annie Jacobsen

This book is a comprehensive account of everything unclassified that DARPA and its predecessor ARPA, has ever done. The subtitle is: “An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency.” It begins with testing nuclear bombs at Bikini Atoll in 1954, where theoretical calculations about the Castle Bravo bomb’s explosive yield get a sobering reality check: it was more than twice as powerful as had been anticipated! Oops. The …


25 March 2019

The End, by Phil Torres

I’ve been fortunate lately to get to meet and interact with Phil Torres, independent scholar of existential risks. At my prompting, Phil came to a GSW meeting where Peter Brannen was talking about mass extinctions, and later he came to my class to talk to my Historical Geology students at NOVA about risks humanity faces. I figured it was about time I read his books, and now I can report …


18 January 2018

Surviving AI, by Calum Chase

I know what you’re thinking: another book about AI, Callan? Really? Yes, really. I don’t know what compelled me – but perhaps that the author’s name was so similar to my own spurred me onward. Surviving AI is Calum Chase’s summary of the current state of affairs with AI risk management (specifically, of course, relative to artificial superintelligence). It’s a well balanced book in that it plainly states where there …


16 October 2017

After On, by Rob Reid

It turns out that Rob Reid can write. This “novel of Silicon Valley” is a tour de force of writing. Reid shows off his chops at writing potboiler adventure stories, ironic Amazon reviews, and sparkling dialogue. It’s a story of Silicon Valley culture, of start-ups and venture capital and social navigation in the Bay Area, but it’s also a novel that explores artificial intelligence (AI) in a fun, engaging way. …


13 September 2017

Life 3.0, by Max Tegmark

A new book on artificial intelligence (AI) has just been published. It’s Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, by MIT physicist Max Tegmark. Tegmark was one of the trailblazing thinkers interviewed by James Barrat in his book Our Final Invention, which I thought was terrific, so I was eager to see what he had to say when writing for himself. I finished the audiobook version of …


29 March 2017

Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson

Okay, let’s get this out of the way up front: In no no way is Robopocalypse of anything like the caliber of Our Final Invention or Superintelligence. Though written by an author who holds a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon, this is an adventure novel. It explores some interesting aspects of a AI vs. humanity conflict, but it’s basically constructed in a way that’s very much mano a mano, …


7 March 2017

A conversation with James Barrat

Yesterday I reviewed Our Final Invention, an accessible and provocative book about the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and the various ways it might represent a threat to some or all of the human species, all other forms of life on Earth, and (astonishingly) potentially even the very substance of the planet we dwell on (!). I strongly recommend everyone read it. Today, I’m please to present a discussion with …


6 March 2017

Our Final Invention, by James Barrat

I am concerned about artificial general intelligence (AGI) and its likely rapid successor, artificial superintelligence (ASI). I have written here previously about that topic, after reading Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence. I have just finished another book on that topic, Our Final Invention, by James Barrat. I think it’s actually a better introduction to the topic than Bostrom, because it’s written in a more journalistic, less academic style. Most chapters read …


27 December 2015

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom

How much thought have you given to the consequences of achieving an non-biological intelligence? If you’re like me, you’ve thought about the notion in a Hollywoodized sense, but once you get out of the cinema showing the latest Terminator film, you might not dwell on the topic too much further. I’ve given artificial intelligence (AI) a little more thought than that in the past six months, largely spurred on by …