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The Big Nine

How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity
By: Amy Webb
Narrated by: Amanda Dolan
Length: 9 hrs and 35 mins
Categories: Non-fiction, Technology
4 out of 5 stars (29 ratings)

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Summary

A call-to-arms about the broken nature of artificial intelligence, and the powerful corporations that are turning the human-machine relationship on its head.

We like to think that we are in control of the future of "artificial" intelligence. The reality, though, is that we - the everyday people whose data powers AI - aren't actually in control of anything. When, for example, we speak with Alexa, we contribute that data to a system we can't see and have no input into - one largely free from regulation or oversight. The big nine corporations - Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, Microsoft, IBM and Apple - are the new gods of AI and are short-changing our futures to reap immediate financial gain. 

In this book, Amy Webb reveals the pervasive, invisible ways in which the foundations of AI - the people working on the system, their motivations, the technology itself - is broken. Within our lifetimes, AI will, by design, begin to behave unpredictably, thinking and acting in ways which defy human logic. The big nine corporations may be inadvertently building and enabling vast arrays of intelligent systems that don't share our motivations, desires, or hopes for the future of humanity.

Much more than a passionate, human-centered call-to-arms, this book delivers a strategy for changing course, and provides a path for liberating us from algorithmic decision-makers and powerful corporations.

©2019 Amy Webb (P)2019 Hachette Audio

Critic reviews

"Webb provides a logical way to sift through today's onslaught of events and information to spot coming changes in your corner of the world." (Kirkus Reviews)

"Her writing is very clear and accessible, and the interesting analogies she uses to illustrate what may occur when algorithms make decisions for us make for compelling reading. This fascinating look at how AI will continue to revolutionize human experiences in unimaginable ways will appeal to anyone interested in AI, human-computer interactions, and machine learning in the private and public sectors." (Booklist)

"Webb teaches us to listen...[she] combines well-researched, reader-friendly insights on Google, drones and artificial intelligence with a system of questions you can bring to your next strategy meeting..." (Chicago Tribune)

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  • McKane
  • 13-03-19

Trusting to a Fault

The perspective taken with respect to the G-MAFIA is largely uncritical and overly hopeful. Rather than delve into the corrupting influence of profit on the G-MAFIA (e.g. Russian involvement in the 2016 election via Facebook and pedophilia group formation mediated by the YouTube recommendation algorithms), the author pins these shortcomings generally on social pressures to produce advanced AI applications (there's no support for this claim given). This perspective then taints the whole argument of the book, which is that we need to support the G-MAFIA in AI development rather than regulate or file for anti-trust suits. As an AI researcher in this space, I have seen absolutely no indication that the G-MAFIA actually ever esteems the public good over their bottom line, so to assume that if we simply stop expecting big advances in AI (and that the companies are made sufficiently diverse) is not only irresponsible, it's dangerous.

My other main gripe with this book is that China's soon to be preeminence in AI is used to justify nearly every proposed course of action. I for one am certainly terrified of China's AI plan, but I don't think that it justifies throwing caution to the wind by simply trusting the G-MAFIA to fight the good fight if they pick up enough diversity (this is the only mechanism of changing the G-MAFIA that the author argues for).

All-in-all, the author gives a decent run-down of current AI capabilities and provides some thoughtful discussion of where AI is headed, but the very premise of the argument seems, to me at least, to be up for debate. It would have been nice to see at least some of that debate in this work.

10 people found this helpful

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  • Kathy Schramke
  • 26-03-19

Interesting but Frustrating

This should have been be a five star book. Amy Webb is smart, engaging and knowledgeable. Ironically, it is when her own biases grow so strong that her predictions loose all credibility.

I do not agree with Webb's foundational thinking. For example, a major Webb warning is based on the idea that AI is being developed by small tribes of men lacking diversity. Microsoft, more than 20 years ago, employed people from all over the world. Tech companies are diverse. Tech companies care about intellectual horsepower above all else and they search the globe for the best and brightest. It is not about country, education, religion, being neurotypical or personal hygiene. Webb predicts this narrow tribe of similar men will forget about transgender people who will be forced into humiliating situations. That's not likely. I remember a man sending a letter to everyone in his building explaining he would be using the woman's restroom while going through the long process of changing his gender. He was considered courageous and this was in the last millennia.

Webb predicts these similar men will only hire more men like them in the future. That is an absurd prediction from someone who spends time thinking about the future. Girls, future women, are surpassing boys. Most collages have more girls than boys. For the ivy league, it can be as high as eight qualified girl applicants to one boy. Volunteer in a classroom and it will not take long to see how much better girls are doing than boys.

More importantly, Webb's predictions about China are incredibly offensive. In Webb's catastrophic scenario China AIs kill every American. Readers visualize children dying in our arms before we die from China's AIs. This was just gross. Webb herself talks about China not having political problems with other countries. She talks about China helping other countries with roads and infrastructure and this is true. China does not want to kill all Americans. This was one of the most disappointing things I have ever read. This is not consistent with China's historical roots and is manipulative in a dangerous way.

I gave the book three stars because the beginning is good. It is a shame that while Webb predicts the bias of software engineers will be a huge problem, it is her own bias that destroys what could have been a great book.

20 people found this helpful

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  • David Larson
  • 04-04-19

Best AI book I've read since Bostrom

The title is a little misleading. it's not just about the big 9. It's about politics and society and how other countries (China) are outcompeting us in AI and will very soon overtake the US. This book is a big wake up call. The American military spends too much on hardware (because that's where the lobby money is) and not enough on scientific research (especially into AI). China has our number. Unfortunately I don't see a scenario where we reform our corrupt appropriations system in time not to become a servant to China by around mid-century. Good book though.

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  • Daniel Simpson, MD
  • 24-05-20

Worth the listen

Intriguing thoughts. Worth the listen. Certainly encouraged me to think more critically about possible future scenarios of AI impact and understanding the global community of AI better.

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  • Casey Riddell
  • 22-05-20

Even more relevant with Carona SARSv2

Great futuristic insight that seems more relevant now with Carona SARSv2 and the possibility that AI played a role in its creation (full speculation) or can hopefully play a role in a vaccine.

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  • Kris P.
  • 06-05-20

Mind blown, eyes opened.

This book helped me see how prevalent AI is today, and even gave three scenarios of where it could go in the foreseeable future. That was the most eye opening to me. I am only mildly tech savvy yet I found all the content and concepts easy to follow. I also loved that there were solutions and guidance offered from someone who really seems to understand the broader picture as well as having been in the trenches. Thank you for opening my mind to this important information.

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  • IMS
  • 12-04-20

Not So Hot

Book is OK if you have not kept up with the AI field. If you do keep up, read Wired or similar tech magazines there is nothing new here.
Second the narrator was completely monotone, and emotionless. You can cure insomnia listening to her.

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  • Andrew Mazibrada
  • 28-02-20

Some good points, but naive and one-sided

Some good points made, and a somewhat useful summary of the BAT, but all Webb's points are dealt with in more detail in better works on AI ethics and futures. Webb's analysis is naive, simplistic, and lacking balance. She places too much trust in the altruism of the G-Mafia, rejects regulation of any kind, asserts the need for a coalition that is not in the commercial interests of the G-Mafia and which flies in the face of everything we know about cognitive biases and business practices (take one look at climate change and see that businesses put businesses first even in the serious position we are now in), adopts a frighteningly McCarthyist paranoia in respect of China, and is deeply enmeshed in free-market solutions and innovation as the answer to all our problems, despite the powerful critiques of capitalism in many recent works on AI. No mention is made of Shoshana Zuboff's work on Surveillance Capitalism which, given Webb's stance, ought to have been dealt with in some way (Zuboff's theories predate Webb's publication, even though the books were released within months of each other). This highlights what I assert is a quite unscholarly work - she asks us to trust her in her analysis of the G-Mafia, as though her place as a trusted insider gives her value, without offering us evidence to support that trust. She continually uses adverbs like 'admirably' to describe their conduct, especially that of Google, which flies in the face of what Zuboff's far more detailed and scholarly work offers us. Essentially, Zuboff backs up her claims with evidence. Webb does not. There are better books.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 09-02-20

who spying & who is not

little long - however worthwhile

Google's do no harm is BS

who would of thought Apple is more moral than most.

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  • Jeffrey D
  • 06-01-20

Not much thought put into this book

I could not finish this book. She tells us that China is growing fast. That there are big companies using AI. That developers tend to be white people. That AI is to some extent a black box. But I did not see any particular insight into AI. It was more a book about bias and what she calls, in pop-sociology, "tribes." But if you pretend to write about one subject, and really write about another, the danger is that the real topic will be one the author does not know much about. I admit that I got less than halfway through the book before remembering that I am not going to live forever.