ARC Review: The Loop: How Technology Is Creating A World Without Choices And How To Fight Back

Jacob Ward is an experienced science and technology journalist, and he's worried about where we humans are headed in our pursuit of, and relationship to Artificial Intelligence (AI). In this thought provoking book Ward lays out his concerns and demonstrates how some of them are already playing out.

Artificial Intelligence as a concept has been around since at least the 1950s. Over the years funding for AI has waxed and waned as has the enthusiasm for, and perception of, it's usefulness. 

Roughly defined, AI is the ability of computers to reason, plan, and learn as a human would. Today a form of AI known as machine learning is predominant, and is an often used tool of tech companies trying to influence us as we use the internet. 

Machine learning software is based on pattern recognition. The software is shown numerous examples of things and over time begins to recognize patterns and to be able to act on those patterns. An easy to understand example might be the Netflix software that monitors your viewing habits and recommends movies and shows it thinks you might like. It does this based on its observations of the viewing choices of others who've watched the shows you've watched.

That pattern recognition is at the heart of Ward's concerns. He argues that humans are not as rational as we might like to think we are. We tend to make decisions based on instinct, gut feel and compulsions rather than on any logical reasoning of risk and probability. As any Star Trek fan knows, we humans are much more the instinctual Captain Kirk than the logical Mr. Spock. Now with AI we are coupling our instincts and compulsions to computer systems designed to generate profits by feeding us what those instincts and compulsions will respond to.

In the first part of the book the author lays out the research into how we humans make decisions and how much of our decision making is done from a subconscious level.  In the second part of the book he demonstrates how AI is finding patterns in our subconscious decision making and reinforcing them, and showing us how much of that reinforcement is for the profit of others, leaving us in a restricting loop of smaller and smaller individual choice.

These AI deployments designed "not just [to] spot patterns in human behavior, but also to shape them" include finding ways to make online "for fun casino" gaming software more addictive and to entice players to move on to real gambling. It can also include automating the placement of ads as we move around the internet to optimize sales. Notice that the primary aim in both these examples is not to benefit us, the people who are subject to this software, but rather the companies deploying the software for profit.

The book is, as I said, thought provoking, and Ward's metaphor of loops within loops constricting our choices is helpful. But he does a better job in his discussion of our human decision making mechanisms than in describing the ways in which AI is already harming us. There is no discussion at all, for example, of how social media algorithms reinforce tribal responses to online (and real world) political discussion, at least a portion of which I suspect is the product of the deployment of AI.  

Even so, if you are interested in a better understanding of the potential dangers of Artificial Intelligence as it's being deployed right now you will find this book well worth the read. Despite the topic it is not overly technical but rather is highly readable. I give The Loop Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐.

NOTE: I received an advanced reviewer's copy of this book through NetGalley and Hachette Books in exchange for a fair and honest review. The book is generally available Saturday, January 25, 2022.

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Title: The Loop: How Technology Is Creating A World Without Choices And How To Fight Back
Author: Jacob Ward
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publish Date: January 25 2022
ISBN-13: 9780316487207
List Price: $29.00 (Hardcover as of 12/11/2021)