The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity

The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity

by Byron Reese


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As we approach a great turning point in history when technology is poised to redefine what it means to be human, The Fourth Age offers fascinating insight into AI, robotics, and their extraordinary implications for our species. “If you only read just one book about the AI revolution, make it this one” (John Mackey, cofounder and CEO, Whole Foods Market).

In The Fourth Age, Byron Reese makes the case that technology has reshaped humanity just three times in history: 100,000 years ago, we harnessed fire, which led to language; 10,000 years ago, we developed agriculture, which led to cities and warfare; 5,000 years ago, we invented the wheel and writing, which lead to the nation state.

We are now on the doorstep of a fourth change brought about by two technologies: AI and robotics. “Timely, highly informative, and certainly optimistic” (Booklist), The Fourth Age provides an essential background on how we got to this point, and how—rather than what—we should think about the topics we’ll soon all be facing: machine consciousness, automation, changes in employment, creative computers, radical life extension, artificial life, AI ethics, the future of warfare, superintelligence, and the implications of extreme prosperity.

By asking questions like “Are you a machine?” and “Could a computer feel anything?”, Reese leads you through a discussion along the cutting edge in robotics and AI, and provides a framework by which we can all understand, discuss, and act on the issues of the Fourth Age and how they’ll transform humanity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501158568
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 04/24/2018
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 258,638
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Byron Reese is the CEO and publisher of the technology research company Gigaom, and the founder of several high-tech companies. He has spent the better part of his life exploring the interplay of technology with human history. Reese has obtained or has pending patents in disciplines as varied as crowdsourcing, content creation, and psychographics. The websites he has launched, which cover the intersection of technology, business, science, and history, have together received over a billion visitors. He is the author of the acclaimed book, Infinite Progress. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Read an Excerpt

The Fourth Age

The most distinctive characteristic of the last century or so might seem to be the enormous amount of change that has occurred. Dozens, if not hundreds, of advances are said to have revolutionized our lives. The list includes automobiles, air travel, television, the personal computer, the Internet, and cell phones. Change is everywhere. We have harnessed the atom, flown into space, invented antibiotics, eliminated smallpox, and sequenced the genome.

But within the context of the overall arc of human history, little has changed in the past five thousand years. Just like the people who lived five millennia ago, we too have moms, dads, kids, schools, governments, religions, war, peace. We still celebrate births and mourn death. Forever with us, universal to all cultures of humanity, are sports, weddings, dancing, jewelry, tattoos, fashion, gossip, social hierarchy, fear, love, joy, happiness, and ecstasy. Looked at through this lens, humanity really hasn’t changed much in all that time. We still go to work in the morning;, only the way we get there has changed. In ancient Assyria, toddlers pulled around small wooden horsey toys on wheels with a string. In classical Greece, boys played tug-of-war. Ancient Egypt was renowned for its cosmetics, and millennia ago, Persians celebrated birthdays in much the same way as we do, with parties, presents, and special desserts.

No, the remarkable thing about our time is not the change we have seen; rather, it is the change we haven’t seen. The really amazing thing is how similar we are to our forebears. In ancient Rome, gladiators were paid celebrity spokesmen who recited product plugs just before the competition: “That’s why I use Antinius’s swords. You won’t find a better sword at any price.” And just like in our times, there were people willing to perform dramatically destructive acts just for the fame that doing so brought about, as was said to have happened on July 21, 356 BC, when an arsonist named Herostratus burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, simply for the everlasting fame it would bring him. In response, a law was passed that made saying his name a crime, but clearly Herostratus got his wish.

If you went to visit a friend in antiquity, you might have seen mounted on the door a brass lion’s head with a ring in its mouth to be used to announce your arrival. If you attended a wedding five thousand years ago, you likely would have joined the wedding party as they wished good fortune on the new couple by throwing rice. Today, when we read that archaeologists have dug up ancient lead slingshot bullets each engraved with the word “catch,” we still get the joke.

These people of antiquity were just like us. To really appreciate the unchanging nature of humans, one need look no farther than a book called Characters written by a Greek named Theophrastus 2,300 years ago. He satirized humanity itself, and sorted us all by type, such as the Flatterer, the Boor, the Chatty Man, and so forth. If you know someone who takes photos of his meals and posts them online, you might see him in the person Theophrastus calls the Garrulous Man, who “begins with a eulogy of his wife, relates the dream he had the night before, tells dish by dish what he had for supper,” and concludes that “we are by no means the men we were” in times past. Theophrastus then goes on to describe the Stupid Man, who “when he goes to the play, is left at the end fast asleep in an empty house. . . . After a hearty supper he has to get up in the night, returns only half awake, misses the right door, and is bitten by his neighbor’s dog.”

No, against the backdrop of history, our time has seen very little change. In fact, I maintain that things have only really changed three times in human history. Each time was due to technology. Not just a single technology, but groups of interrelated technologies that changed us in fundamental and permanent, even biological, ways. That’s it. Just three big changes so far.

This book is about the fourth one.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction 1

Part 1 The Long, Hard Road to Today 5

The Story of Prometheus 7

1 The First Age: Language and Fire 9

2 The Second Age: Agriculture and Cities 15

3 The Third Age: Writing and Wheels 21

4 The Fourth Age: Robots and AI 25

5 Three Big Questions 39

Part 2 Narrow AI and Robots 55

The Story of John Henry 57

6 Narrow AI 59

7 Robots 65

8 Technical Challenges 71

9 Will Robots Take All Our Jobs? 83

10 Are There Robot-Proof Jobs? 123

11 The Big Questions 135

12 The Use of Robots in War 151

Part 3 Artificial General Intelligence 155

The Story of the Sorcerer's Apprentice 157

13 The Human Brain 159

14 AGI 169

15 Should We Build an AGI? 181

Part 4 Computer Consciousness 203

The Story of John Frum 205

16 Sentience 207

17 Free Will 215

18 Consciousness 221

19 Can Computers Become Conscious? 239

20 Can Computers Be Implanted in Human Brains? 259

21 Humanity, Redefined? 265

Part 5 The Road From Here 269

The Story of Jean-Luc Picard 271

22 The Invention of Progress 273

23 Life in the Fourth Age 283

24 Death, Where Is Thy Sting? 305

25 What Can Go Wrong? 311

26 The Fifth Age 315

Acknowledgments 319

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The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent, hope-filled stepping stone into the realm of AI This book was my first real encounter with AI -- as opposed to a speculative dystopian read -- and it was a delight. I applaud Reese's accessible style and contagious optimism. Multi-faceted and engaging, this is a book for readers of all ages, educational and professional backgrounds. It isn't too technical or in any way alienating. At first I assumed it was a history book, but it turned out to be more prediction and guesswork -- a book of possibilities. What I appreciate about this is that Reese isn't spoon-feeding the reader his own opinions but rather giving room for us to decide what to buy, which I find extremely relevant to our "post-truth" society (i.e. being saturated in information / not knowing what to believe). The reading 'pathway' is our choice, yet we get to see the bigger picture from other points-of-view and belief systems. Besides the fascinating topic, the writing is inclusive, empathetic and well-informed. As a side note, Reese is one of the most hopeful writers I've read -- and it's nice to find someone who believes in humanity.
Christina_CK_Kerley More than 1 year ago
The Fourth Age: an exceptional read . . . in a class of its own Having read scores of books, papers, and articles on AI, Automation, and Robotics, I’ve enjoyed my fair share of great reads. But The Fourth Age is truly exceptional. It is the only book that exhaustively—and so fairly—covers every single question, concern, upside, and downside of these breakthrough technologies. And all the while, through every chapter, maintains its objectivity. Throughout the book, the author provides readers with his own reasoning and rationale along with those from an abundance of scientists, theorists, technologists, business leaders, and futurists that stand on every side (pro and con!) of each and every issue. And whether the reader is steeped in these technologies, or altogether new to them, this book will be your friend—because it walks you through these technologies in easy-to-grasp ways. I must admit, as a tech enthusiast, when I first bought the book, I thought I would only review a few chapters… but after a few chapters, I was so hooked that I binge-read the entire piece in a weekend! (Who says binging is only for TV content?!) Net net: If you want a book that covers every angle—and every argument—from every side of today’s most important technologies… this is surely the one.
Michelle47 More than 1 year ago
The Fourth Age is a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the future of AI or of society as a whole because, as Reese explains, we’re at the dawn of a new age of technological advancement. Reese strikes the perfect balance between easy to understand and thorough. It wasn’t preachy or bogged down with technical facts, like a lot of nonfiction books on AI are. Instead, his book kept me hooked and was well-written in layman terms. Even though I have no background in AI or in computers, I was able to follow and understand Reese’s carefully laid-out arguments and thought process. In media, we often only see polarized views with outlandish claims on the future of AI. Thus, The Fourth Age is especially eye-opening because Reese maintains a neutral point of view and provides the reader ample evidence to support his ultimate conclusions. He entertains all possible scenarios/theories regarding unemployment, affluence, quality of life, and conscious AI. Then he gives the reader the comprehensive rundown on how likely they are to happen. But what fascinated me the most was Reese’s exploration of the big philosophical questions that the future of AI raises. He challenges us to reconsider what it means to be conscious and what it means to be a human. We often think of computers as cold and mechanistic, embedded in the STEM field, but Reese shatters that notion by showing how fundamentally connected philosophy and AI are in an incredibly provocative way. Overall, The Fourth Age is an informative, gripping read that sheds light on the murky world of AI.