Books - John Markoff’s love for ‘Machines’

New York Times’ reporter and science author takes on the AI versus IA debate in new book

If you write about technology, as John Markoff does, you need certain abilities. You need to activate both the right and left halves of your brain as you combine the soft art of writing with the harder edges of technology. You need to be alert to rapid technological change, which gets instantly reported and amplified on the Internet. It helps, too, if you have an inside track to Silicon Valley, one of the centers of tech innovation.

When I reached Markoff by phone on his way to a backpacking trip, I learned that he had started off right. “I grew up in Silicon Valley,” he told me. “I was the paperboy at the home that Steve Jobs used in live in and where [Google co-founder] Larry Page lives now.” After college and grad school, where he majored in social science, he became a writer for outlets like the pioneering computer magazine Byte. “A year at Byte was sort of my technical education,” he says. And since 1988, he has used that education to cover tech and science for the New York Times, first from New York and now from San Francisco.

Markoff’s 27 years at the Times span about one human generation but many more “tech generations” and his career has followed the growth of the computer industry. In 1988, writing about computers mostly meant writing about IBM, which had been dominant with its big mainframe machines. But that changed as others took the lead in hardware and software for personal and mobile computing, the Internet, and the cloud — and change just keeps coming. Apple’s iPhone and iPad, only eight and five years old respectively; have already evolved through multiple generations and face dozens of competing products, themselves also evolving.

Markoff covered these topics but around 2004, another trend caught his attention: developments in robotics and artificial intelligence (A.I.), though the early signs were on a small scale. Starting around 1999, you could buy robot dogs like Aibo from Sony and i-Cybie from Silverlit, and the vacuum cleaner Roomba from iRobot. These were not brilliantly intelligent. The dogs walked and performed tricks according to limited commands but were nowhere as smart as a real dog or even a cockroach. My own i-Cybie never could figure out how to back itself out of a corner. Roomba navigated around the furniture in a room to do its cleaning and knew enough not to fall down stairs, but that was about it.

Still, people saw great possibilities in these products and more fundamentally, in ongoing research at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and elsewhere, but that is all they were then: future possibilities. What Markoff saw and writes about in his new book, Machines of Loving Grace, is how far A.I. has come since, especially very recently. After a history of researchers over-promising what A.I. would achieve, Markoff sees the technology catching up to and surpassing its own potential. He said that we are seeing, “huge acceleration in terms of A.I. techniques having commercial impact and effectiveness where they didn’t for many years.”

With companies and governments seeing benefits from A.I., instead of robot dogs we now have Google’s self-driving cars navigating through demanding environments and Apple’s Siri interpreting what we say. Markoff writes about these and other A.I. projects, but true to his whole-brain approach, about the people and history behind the tech. That gives perspective on the really important question: where is the explosion in robotics and A.I. taking us, as people and as a society?

In response, Markoff raises issues like the displacement of human workers by robots, though it would take more than one book to fully answer the question. But he brings out a key point, the difference between A.I., and intelligence augmentation (I.A.) which was pursued by the pioneering computer scientist Douglas Engelbart (who also invented the mouse). As Markoff explains it, researchers in the A.I. tradition think that machines can act like humans, whereas followers of I.A. develop technology that allows people to collectively access information and harness their minds to solve problems. Without buying into science-fiction-ish speculation that AI will dominate or replace all of humanity, he is concerned about the choice between the two visions.

As Markoff writes at the end of his book, “This is about us, about humans, and the kind of world we will create. It’s not about the machines.”

Thus, it makes sense that he’d end our conversation with a warning note. “This generation of technology will begin confronting us with these decisions,” he says.

May we make the right choices.