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Life 3.0 - Max Tegmark ***

I have to confess that my first reaction to this book was not anything to do with the contents, but trying to work out if there was something really clever about the the way the book's title is printed on the spine in white on cream, so it's illegible - would it be, for example, a subtle test of human versus artificial intelligence (AI)? However, that was just a distraction.

Max Tegmark is an interesting and provocative thinker in the physics arena, so I had high hopes for what he'd come up with exploring the future of AI and its relationship to human beings. It's worth explaining that the title of the book refers to three 'levels' of life where 1.0 is 'can survive and replicate' (e.g. bacteria), 2.0 is can design its own software (e.g. us - where 'software' refers to our concepts, ideas and extended abilities such as language) and 3.0 is can design its own hardware, enabling it to transform itself more directly and quickly than our creativity enables us to do.

The book starts with a bit of fiction, which I'm usually nervous about, but it actually works very well, as it's presented more like a non-fiction description of a business development rather than attempting all the quirks of fiction. In it we have a semi-plausible description of how a company that succeeds in producing a self-enhancing AI could take over the world. And this is genuinely thought-provoking.

So, early on, I was convinced I was going to love this book. But unfortunately there is an awful lot of futurology in here (aka guesswork) and like all futurology, Tegmark's can be frustratingly specific about things that we are highly unlikely to be able to predict - though at least he recognises this is the case and points it out. He covers the various ways a super-intelligent AI could develop, whether it would become a rogue, how we'd interact with it... and then plunges on into more and more dramatic speculation, including a chapter that looks forward 'the next billion years and more.' Forgive me for feeling a bit 'So what?' about this.

There is no doubt the whole business of super-AIs is an issue that needs thinking about and discussing - and Tegmark does this in an approachable and engaging fashion. It probably needs reading alongside Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence to get a well-rounded picture, though. It would have helped if it had been significantly shorter - it came across as being long because it was the kind of 'big book' that has to be chunky, and I think it would have been a lot more effective at half its length. One particular section that was ripe for trimming had a long list of scenarios, each of which was then worked through - dull reading, I'm afraid. 

In the end futurology is a bit like being told about someone else's dream. It probably seems fascinating to them, but it's hard to get too excited about it as a reader. Life 3.0 is an interesting book, but feels rather like a pet project, rather than a strong popular science title.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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