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  • 30 July at 3:00 pm

    Technology Vs. Humanity is futurist Gerd Leonhard’s description of the coming clash between man and machine. From the very first sentence, you know that he isn’t pulling any punches when he claims that “Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300 years”. This proves to be an apt starting point for what soon becomes a rollercoaster tour of the future. Navigating topics that range from artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to human ethics in a digital world, he weaves a multitude of themes into a Silicon-Age tapestry of what could be, presenting to us a scene that’s equal parts fantastic and terrifying.

    Leonhard begins by invoking Moore’s Law, and claims that we are currently at the threshold of technology’s exponential growth – the point of no return. He asserts that because of this, we have a unique, singular opportunity in humanity’s history to chart our collective future’s course, but that we must act now to confront the fork that lies in the road ahead, before it’s too late. Merely being alive at such an important juncture immediately elicits in you a sense of importance. This is soon tempered, though, by the realisation of the monumental responsibility we’re collectively burdened with. Feeling like a tightrope walker balancing over a yawning canyon, by the end of the first chapter you’re imbued with a sense of adrenaline-laced dread that refuses to fade as the book progresses.

    Much of Technology Vs. Humanity’s argument revolves around the question of what it means to be human, and how this could be changed—possibly irreversibly—by the onward march of technological progress. We’re encouraged to begin thinking about this by Leonhard’s introduction of what he calls “androrithms” – memes employed to describe uniquely human traits such as empathy, compassion and creativity. An anthropogenic analogue to the digital algorithms that increasingly control our lives, Leonhard argues that we must embrace the androrithm as a vantage point for future technological development. He subtly invokes Asimov’s First Law of Robotics as he cautions “we should not attempt to fix, upgrade, or even eradicate what makes us human; rather, we should design technology to know and respect these differences – and protect them”.

    Throughout the book, Leonhard often breaks his writing’s flow with standalone quotations from some of history’s intellectual heavyweights. That an eminent futurist would lean so obviously on the ideas of others is slightly puzzling at first. In the second chapter, “Tech Vs. Us”, the inclusion of doomsdayer-like prophecies such as Nikola Tesla’s claim that “you may live to see man-made horrors beyond your comprehension” seems an obvious trick employed simply to ramp-up excitement. However, as each quote is digested a pattern emerges that reveals these short passages to be highly effective supporters of his cause. Leonhard uses this device to quietly reinforce his argument; a modest gesture from a thinker who could just as well demand you believe him (and get away with it).
    Tesla’s prophecy is echoed in “The Internet of Inhuman Things”, the book’s fifth chapter, in which Leonhard references the lack of interest scientists and engineers currently show in charting our future’s course. Going on to describe the chilling effects that this could have on the development of the Internet of Things, he suggests that without adequate preparation, we may end up as willing prisoners in an Orwellian nightmare; forever surveilled in a digital panopticon the scale of which Bentham could not have imagined.

    Leonhard leaves us with “Decision Time”, the final chapter, in which we are presented with an ultimatum: commit to being on “team human”, or risk forever living with a sense of Oppenheimer regret (a reference to the sentiment of the famous physicist whose work made the atomic bomb a reality). The gravity of this choice is emphasised by the comparison of our current position to that of the signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaties half a century ago, and we are implored to lay a similar framework for technology’s development – with human needs at its core.

    Technology Vs. Humanity is a fantastically absorbing book that is at times overwhelming. Despite the many predictions it offers, it’s sometimes frustrating to be left with more questions than when you started. A sense that you’ve been cheated soon dissolves upon realising that this was the intention all along. The book is more a manifesto for change than anything else, and Leonhard’s rhetorical writing style is revealed as a deliberate attempt to stimulate discussion. Kevin Kelly, celebrated futurist and founding editor of Wired magazine, once said that “machines are for answers, and humans are for questions”. For all that we can learn from technology, to get the answers we’re looking for perhaps we need to begin by asking the right questions. Could this be what Leonhard means in the book’s final pages when, turning to his audience, he asks, “what are we prepared to do to further the conversation?”.

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