Friday, January 22, 2016

Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff ****

Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff is an admiring history of Silicon Valley and artificial intelligence. As with many writers who have visited The Valley, he has been entranced by the mythology of the companies and hagiography of the people.

As someone who was there, and knew and worked with many of the technology saints, I have a more jaded view of the events, but regardless how much I enjoyed the trip down memory lane.

In addition to worshipful anecdotes of the last sixty years, the author explores an interesting tension between two schools of technology developers. The first is artificial intelligence (AI) with the goal of computers that replace humans. The other is intelligence augmentation (IA) which keeps humans in the loops, but just strives to make them more efficient and effective.

An example of AI is a driverless car, while IA is cruise control, anti-lock brakes, and collision avoidance systems. The is an example of how the IA path has had all the successes, while the AI proponents proudly say that their research has driven the IA successes.

The organization of the book is a collection of mini-histories. The result can be a bit jarring as the timeline is repeated between chapters, and sometimes within chapters. Many of the important actors appear repeatedly. Like Silicon Valley itself, little is in perspective; every product, company, scientists, and entrepreneur is as important as the next.

For the purpose of this book, the pinnacle of technology is Siri. After reading this frenetic history, one is left with the secure feeling that in a few years Siri will be forgotten and we will all be on to the the next thing. I recommend this book for anyone who has worked in Silicon Valley and wants to bask in the glory one more time.

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