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Book Review: Kevin Roose’s Futureproof is superb entry point into crucial AI debate 

How will AI affect our jobs and lives? How is it already affecting our jobs and lives? And what can we do about it? New York Times columnist Kevin Roose tries to tackle these questions and provide a manual for how to live in the age of automation

Mumbai / March 20, 2021 / 07:28 AM IST

There are a lot of books out there on Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation, robotics, and the future, a lot, So when you write another book about that area, it better be different and important. Futureproof: 9 Rules For Humans in the Age of Automation manages to do this and makes some compelling points about a subject everyone loves debating about, but no one quite has clarity about.

Roose, a technology columnist with the New York Times, tackles one of the key questions of any generation, most crucially ours- How will AI and technology affect our lives? Will robots replace many of our jobs? Can we do anything about it? 

The author starts from the vantage point of a skeptic- questioning the narrative that technology change will create more careers than it destroys, and examining the wide gap between what entrepreneurs and companies promise AI can do (only nice things- make everyone’s lives easier), and what it actually does (enables mass layoffs, spreads misinformation and makes humans subservient to algorithms).

The book would have been good as a journalistic account- an independent third-person view on the benefits and challenges of AI, what industries can use it best, what should be guarded against, and who is doing the best job of it. But Roose writes Futureproof in the first person, which makes it both a critical analysis and a self-help manual. He uses the book to examine his own technological journey- how he realised he was at his phone’s mercy and how he changed it- and how you can do the same.

The personalised narrative and self-help way of writing makes an otherwise complicated and jargon-filled subject a fairly breezy read.

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Futureproof examines most of the fundamental theories about AI and its future and comes to some interesting conclusions. Will AI replace many human jobs? Yes. Can humans do something about it? Also yes. It advises people to bring ‘humanity back to their jobs- be personal, be caring, be sensitive- bring the human touch to everything you do, and technology can never fully replace you. 

It questions some fundamental assumptions as well. Is having no friction really the best technological experience? When you remove all friction from an experience, is the resulting addiction good? Is the tech in control, or is the user?

Each case Roose makes is buttressed with examples, either from his own experience and reporting or from history and research. This makes his case far more compelling and provides a lot more context on the AI debate.

Chapters about the origin of the recommendation engine- which fuels virtually the entire internet today, and drawing parallels between the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s to today’s technological change provide good insight into how so much has changed in tech, yet placed in context, none of it seems overly surprising. 

The book uses history and the work of others very well, citing research, surveys and analysis to show how technology can affect us in ways we least expect it. He talks about a case study where men preferred to electrocute themselves rather than sit idle for an extended period of time. The example illustrates why social media and doom-scrolling is so addictive and that being alone with our thoughts makes many people profoundly uncomfortable.

Roose writes with flair without mincing his words and drives home two points throughout the book. One- the AI revolution is not coming, or some faraway winter we have to prepare for. It is here, it is affecting us today, and we have to prepare accordingly today. Two- AI and robots are not going to magically take away all jobs and make millions redundant. They will do so if the people running these companies want to make millions redundant. It finally boils down to humans one way or the other, and there are lots of things we can do to combat it.

Futureproof looks at various industries, from a factory floor to a journalist to a call center, to see how automation is affecting these industries, and what we need to do to make ourselves relevant.

Roose talks about human endpoints- people whose job is to serve as a bridge between two machines- say a security guard operating a digital register and pressing the turnstile entry button, or a restaurant handing an order to a delivery app rider- two people following two app’s instructions. These jobs are at the maximum risks of being automated completely. 

Roose also writes with a certain earnestness- writing in the first person and weaving in his experience along with reporting and research really drives home the self-help nature of the book. In each chapter, and after the book, there are parts on what you can specifically do to improve your relationship with technology

AI and automation is such a fundamental part of our life and so rapidly evolving that any number of books can be (and have been) written on it.

Futureproof is a little generic- it could have explored some industries further or analysed the top 5 companies which could transform our lives the most in this regard. But because it is broad, it is far easier to absorb for the lay reader and acts as an entry point into the AI debate. If the reader wants to dive deeper, he/she read many of the books Futureproof cites at the end. Roose’s biggest achievement is striking a fine balance between being accessible to the lay reader, and being insightful even for people who track the technology industry. 
M. Sriram
first published: Mar 20, 2021 07:28 am

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