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AI 2041: Ten Visions For Our Future by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Quifan (book review).

September 19, 2021 | By | Reply More

One of the greatest challenges for a Science Fiction author is to write a story set twenty or so years in the future. It’s not close enough to be indistinguishable from today, it’s not far enough in the future that anything could be possible, but it is close enough that you can soon be proven entirely wrong in your predications.

This is the challenge that AI expert Kai-Fu Lee and SF author Chen Quifan have set themselves in ‘AI 2041’, sub-titled ‘Ten Visions for the Future’.

In his introduction, Kai-Fu Lee explains the rigorous process he followed in an attempt to make his technological predictions as realistic as possible before handing over the concepts to Chen Quifan to be crafted into a series of ten stories. This scientifically-grounded basis puts an interesting spin on all of the tales that follow, making them more illustrative than plot-driven and yet imbuing them with an air of inevitability. Chen Quifan’s novel ‘Waste Tide’ was similarly set in a near future of extrapolated technology intersecting with real life and that same feeling of being grounded in reality comes through in these stories.

Each story is followed by an essay from Kai-Fu Lee in which he explains in more detail the technologies illustrated. These, too, make for fascinating reading and widened my understanding of the multifaceted discipline of AI research.

The opening story, ‘The Golden Elephant’, takes place in Mumbai, where personalised insurance premiums are calculated by a range of related insurance apps that track every aspect of a family’s life. Like all of the stories in the collection, it does not set out to teach a moral lesson, but highlights both the good and bad that can result from such applications. By bad, I don’t mean taking over the world and destroying humanity. That kind of result is not predicted by Kai-Fu Lee, you’ll be glad to know.

It is the strengths and the shortcomings of AI and those who create the systems that are illustrated in this touching tale of forbidden snacks and forbidden love.

‘Gods Behind The Mask’ takes us to Lagos, where Amaka, a hacker who specialises in deepfake videos, is hired to subvert the anonymous political propaganda of a mysterious on-line figure. The technological details of how this would be accomplished are woven into Amaka’s personal tale as he questions his own identity and the morality of what he has been asked to do, while managing to capture an air of Afrofuturism along the way.

Identical twin brothers feature in ‘Twin Sparrows’, where they live in a progressive orphanage that makes use of personalised AI education to bring out the best in each of their disparate personalities. The different courses their lives take as they are moulded by their AI companions, which in turn are programmed by well-meaning adults, makes for a fascinating commentary on questions of nature versus nurture and freedom of choice.

The COVID pandemic forms the depressing backdrop of ‘Contactless Love’, in which variations of the virus are still rumbling on twenty years later. Chen Nan lives an isolated life in her apartment, afraid to go out and now in the Catch-22 situation of finding that her vaccines are out of date so she can’t go out. While everyday life is perfectly possible without leaving home, Chen Nan faces a dilemma and faces her fears when her on-line boyfriend braves the virus to come and visit her. Of all the stories in the collection, this one seemed to include the most technologies that are already possible.

When pop star Hiroshi dies in mysterious circumstances, superfan Aiko is given the chance to investigate via an immersive game experience in the story ‘My Haunting Idol’. As well as showcasing augmented reality technology, the story deals with the pressures of fame and the ephemeral nature of pop culture in a very affecting tale.

‘The Holy Driver’ features Chamal, a young lad with a flair for VR racing games who is hired to test a new virtual car driving system, which appears to be designed for developing autonomous AI software. I began to suspect there was something a bit ‘Enders Game’ going on, but it’s a fun and thought-provoking tale.

In ‘Quantum Genocide’, hacker Robin sets out to discover who robbed her of the bitcoin fortune she was in the midst of stealing and finds herself obliged to work with the authorities who are tracking the same shadowy figure and who is also, it seems, attempting to bring about the end of civilisation. Some of the most worrying AI concepts such as autonomous weapons feature in this story but, in fact, Kai-Fu Lee’s essay on the subject is even more chilling than the story in this case.

As mass unemployment caused by the AI revolution continues apace, job reallocation companies struggle to bring employment and meaning to people’s lives in ‘The Job Saviour’. Jennifer joins one such company and comes face to face with the hopelessness faced by those made redundant and the hard choices being made by those attempting to help them. The particularly empathetic characters in this story add a layer of pathos to the tale.

If AI can tackle almost any job, can it also understand humans well enough to bring them happiness? This question is tackled in ‘Isle Of Happiness’, a tale that could have been a future ‘Tale Of 1001 Nights’ and, in fact, includes a re-telling of one of those tales. On an AI-infused Island, Russian billionaire Viktor experiences seemingly everything he needs to bring happiness, yet something is still missing…

What will life be like when food, clothing and shelter are free and there is no need of work or money? ‘Dreaming Of Plenitude’ postulates a future in Australia where citizens can earn Moola, an AI-calculated social recognition, to enhance their well-being. Following on from the previous story’s question of happiness, it looks at whether AI can ever really understand humans.

Following each of the stories in the volume, Kai-Fu Lee’s commentary provides a far more in-depth analysis than I have in this review. Without those commentaries, the short story collection could not stand on its own. The two are intertwined, building up and developing the theme of the future of AI and creating a thought-provoking and fascinating whole.

Gareth D Jones

September 2021

(pub: WH Allen/Penguin, 2021. 480 page enlarged paperback. Price: $30.00 (US), £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7535590-100-7)

check out website: www.penguin.co.uk

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Category: Books, Scifi

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