The book industry has a key role to play in the development of artificial intelligence.
Artificial intelligence is about to eat the world, decimate all our jobs, hack our brains and eradicate the human race... according to many commentators. Fortunately we have time to avert this potential technical apocalypse, and book publishers and authors are in a good position to step up and play an important role.
Here are the top five areas where publishers can take a part in this key moment of technological and human evolution.
1. Provide jobs
Most of the news about the jobs that will be impacted by the rise in AI agree that the creative industries will be among the least affected. Roles like accountants, lawyers, city traders and anyone who analyses large quantities of data is at risk. In fact, most forward-looking firms in these sectors have already recruited AI teams to anticipate their transition to this new way of working. The creative industries are at the top of the list of resilient careers thankfully, as what we do is most difficult for a computer to replicate – the act of creation, of appreciation of creativity, and what could be broadly termed ‘being human’. Perhaps publishers will soon publish AI-written novels, or AI poetry, but as long as they are published for humans, I feel we will want them to be curated by humans.
2. Encourage diversity
Publishing prides itself on its diversity of ideas: from children’s books, through romance, to murder, to non-fiction and biography. AI is currently being developed with large scale ambitions, but needs to have a broad source of inspiration to establish its values. AI algorithms are already reading CVs as part of applying for a job. If these algorithms are being written to favour applications that are similar to the people who write the algorithms – consciously or unconsciously – then this will lead to an increased lack of diversity in the workplace which will affect all strata of society.
3. Influence editorial strategies
In previous articles I have talked about publishing’s role as moral guardians. As well as developing technology, companies like IBM, Google and Amazon should maintain a strong moral compass as their technology pervades our homes in ever more personal ways. In our own home, we unplugged Amazon’s Alexa because it only responds to commands: “Alexa, turn on the radio” was starting to influence the behaviour of our young sons. Shouting at women in the home is not a good moral lesson, and Amazon has no excuse for not making its Echo product more gender aware. At the very least they could have called it Alex and saved on printing costs by one letter. I would propose that technologies companies have formal joint ventures with book publishers to form and maintain editorial strategies for these new products – refining stories, tone and quality.
4. Push our boundaries
As well as diversity in authors, now more than ever we need diversity in ideas. If products like Google Home and Alexa are our new gateway to news and information, audiobooks and literature, then the presentation of this content needs to be managed in such a way that opens our minds to a world perspective rather than being based on what our social bubble ‘recommends that we might also like.’ The web allows us to search broadly and on a global basis, but these new AI devices are tailored so-called ‘walled gardens’. Once again, it is in the interests of both these new mainstream technology companies and publishers to work together towards a common diversity goal.
5. Communicate our humanity
The ethical issues that artificial intelligence present stretch beyond book publishing into philosophical discussions around the future of humanity and our evolution. Stephen Hawking has talked about its potential to delete humanity, and Elon Musk has started Neurolink to explore brain-machine linked technology. AI is “learning” from the lessons we train it. At the moment, the highest profile lessons are about beating us at Chess, at Go or learning Space Invaders. Yet this schooling leads to an adolescent AI whose education is about how success is a win/lose scenario against humans. Here again, perhaps teaching it to communicate, to understand the human condition and to appreciate it through literature would be a better direction in which to head.
Fortunately, Google has already thought of this and has been feeding its AI books to learn conversation. Unfortunately they are romance novels, which again seems to indicate a space where a publisher’s curation skills might be well employed. A much broader set of key texts would teach an AI a better value set, and perhaps we are now starting to see the real strategy of the Google Books project.
In a ‘long read’ article, I have argued that the invention of AI will have a significantly greater impact on humanity than the wheel. It will require all industries to evolve a strategy to define their role in its future, but perhaps publishing is best positioned to play the key role in AI’s own philosophical and creative evolution.