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The Big Nine

How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity

By Amy Webb
15-minute read
Audio available
The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity by Amy Webb

The Big Nine (2019) provides a sobering look at the past, present and future of artificial intelligence, both as a field and a form of technology. After recounting some of the most recent and startling developments, the author goes on to identify the key factors and individuals currently shaping it, the directions in which it appears to be heading and the troubling impacts it could have on the future of humanity. She also suggests some intriguing ways in which those impacts could be avoided.

  • Fans of sci-fi movies and TV shows like Westworld, Black Mirror and The Matrix
  • Citizens concerned about the societal ramifications of digital technology
  • Tech mavens wanting to keep abreast of AI research and development

Amy Webb is a professor of strategic foresight at New York University’s Stern School of Business and the founder of the Future Today Institute, which conducts research on emerging technologies. As part of that research, she and her team have developed a data-driven method of forecasting the future, which she laid out in her Washington Post best-seller, The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream.

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The Big Nine

How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity

By Amy Webb
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity by Amy Webb
Synopsis

The Big Nine (2019) provides a sobering look at the past, present and future of artificial intelligence, both as a field and a form of technology. After recounting some of the most recent and startling developments, the author goes on to identify the key factors and individuals currently shaping it, the directions in which it appears to be heading and the troubling impacts it could have on the future of humanity. She also suggests some intriguing ways in which those impacts could be avoided.

Key idea 1 of 9

AI has been revolutionized by the development of deep neural networks.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, AI has made remarkable progress. The key to this progress has been the development of deep neural networks or DNNs.

The precise mechanics of how these work are rather complicated, but the basic idea behind them is fairly simple. Somewhat similar to the human brain, a DNN consists of thousands of simulated neurons linked together and arranged into hundreds of complex layers. By sending and receiving signals to and from each other, these layers of neurons are able to do something called deep learning. That means they can teach themselves how to do things with little or no human supervision; they don’t have to be taught by their human creators, like computer programs of yore.

By harnessing the deep-learning power of DNNs, AI was able to defeat one of its longest-standing adversaries: the ancient Chinese board game of Go. Played with white and black stones on an open grid, this strategy game is even more complex than chess, despite its simple appearance. For instance, whereas chess has only 20 possible opening moves, Go has 361. And by just the second round of play, the possibilities balloon all the way up to 128,960!

Because of the game’s complexity, an AI Go program needs to be able to engage in very creative, responsive and on-the-fly strategic thinking to win a game against a skilled human opponent. For decades, such a victory was one of the primary benchmarks against which the power of AI was measured. And from the 1970s all the way through the early 2000s, AI failed to meet the mark, losing even to novices and children. The game was just too complex for it.

But then along came a start-up called DeepMind that specialized in deep learning and was acquired by Google in 2014. In that same year, the team from DeepMind deployed a DNN-powered program called AlphaGo against a professional Go player, Fan Hui. It beat him five games to zero. It then went on to play in tournaments, where it trounced every human opponent it encountered – including the reigning world champion!

The benchmark of winning at Go had finally been reached, and the incredible deep-learning powers of DNNs had been dramatically demonstrated. But as you’ll find out in the next blink, AlphaGo was just a taste of things to come.

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