Review: Tech writer’s stark warning about how AI is robbing us of our ability to make decisions

Jacob Ward is the author of “The Loop”. Photo: provided by Jacob Ward

We are conditioned to assume that just on the horizon is a smarter, kinder, more enlightened society. There is even a formula for this teleology, adapted by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. from abolitionist Theodore Parker and often employed by former President Barack Obama: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The phrase takes on a cautionary tone in Oakland-based NBC tech reporter Jacob Ward’s new book, “The Loop: How Technology Is Creating a World Without Choices and How to Fight Back.” Ward’s titular “loop” portends a future that is bait and switch: a pleasure dome of frictionless ease and convenience but creatively impoverished by more entrenched bigotry and tribalism than ever before. If blithe optimism about progress is an ineradicable human frailty, so is discrimination against our groups, self-destructive aversion to uncertainty, and a tendency to be confused by probability. Such is the tapestry of human madness that a network of artificial intelligence technologies is sinking into. By indulging in our instincts to offload cognitively demanding tasks, usurping our decision-making abilities, and “pushing” us into desired behaviors, “the loop” routinely encircles and infantilizes us.

Of course, the technological dystopia, wielding a “black mirror” over our present, has become a trope. And a salutary effect of the growing disillusionment with technology has been a series of excellent reviews. But “The Loop” is a strong entry into the canon.

“The Loop: How Technology Creates a Choiceless World and How to Fight Back” by Jacob Ward Photo: Hatchet

Another human weakness is our tendency to be seduced by glowing trinkets, and AI is perhaps the ultimate glowing object. But Ward penetrates to the dark vacancy at its heart, the machine learning systems which, in the permutations of pattern recognition they deploy, are inexplicable even to their architects. Why is this important? When their results are profoundly consequential: determining who qualifies for a mortgage or bond, for example. Meanwhile, their inputs — historical datasets — typically encode age-old biases. Trafficking in the past, AI in its self-limitation serves more or less the same thing. Applied to cultural industries, this means green-lit projects that follow tried and true formulas with thought-provoking and transgressive works more than ever relegated to the trash.

Then there is learned helplessness. Ward interviews the user of an artificial intelligence app designed to mediate between bickering exes navigating shared custody. There is much to be commended for promoting civil discourse in such circumstances; still, exercise leaves a hollow ring. “Are Yacqueline and her ex modeling something for [their son]asks Ward, “…except the bland collegiality they read…from a series of AI-driven prompts?

According to Ward, the loop remains a construction site, partially built. But the “market forces” propelling its deployment seem inexorable. And we can attach ourselves to the idea that there are recesses of human activity that are irreducible to machine learning all we want; Ward suspects that with “time, money and processing power” there will be no inviolable redoubts. It’s not that the AI ​​will reproduce our behavior with anything approaching fidelity, but it will do a “good enough” job for our distracted needs. As a whole, the loop evokes an ambient version of Aldous Huxley’s soporific “soma”, relentlessly unfolding in infinite regress, squeezing us ever more tightly into his solicitous clinch – this at a time when climate change and other pressing misfortunes place a premium on human action.

How do you “fight back”? We must honor values ​​beyond ease and convenience, Ward writes; the opportunity of the difficulty, for example. There is an idea.

The Loop: How Technology Creates a Choiceless World and How to Fight Back
By Jacob Ward
(Hachette; $29; 320 pages)

Author event

The Commonwealth Club presents Jacob Ward: In person and virtual. 6:00 p.m. virtual admission $5; In-person admission $25 and $50 (book included). Masks and proof of vaccination required. 110 The Embarcadero, San Francisco.

  • Stephen Phillips

    Stephen Phillips’ writing has appeared in The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Atlantic, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times and other publications.