Written by Jonathan Richter
So often, discussions about automation and AI are abstract, or happen from a vague bird’s-eye view. People are largely absent from the discussion, and you’re left thinking about technology from a distance. Fortunately, that’s not the case in Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, the latest book from New York Times best-selling author Kevin Roose.
In the introduction, Roose lays out the groundwork for the topic at hand by describing an important dichotomy prevalent in the mainstream AI/Automation debate: the optimists and the pessimists.
Optimists tend to think favorably about the role and development of automation in society. Pessimists are more fearful about what AI could mean for our future–especially when it comes to job security. As you’ll learn, Roose positions himself effectively somewhere in between.
Humanizing the Automation/AI Debate
You’re probably wondering, is Futureproof a book that argues for or against AI/Automation? Roose is smart to raise this question early on in the Introduction, and is forthright with what he thinks is largely missing from conversation entirely:
“…both sides tend to treat technological change as a disembodied natural force that simply happens to us…Neither side does a good job of acknowledging that humans are waking up every day and making decisions about how to design, deploy, and measure the effectiveness of these systems.”Roose, K. (2021). Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation. United States: Random House Publishing Group., p.XXV.
As someone who actively engages in planning and developing automation technology for businesses, I find this core argument very refreshing! There is no overarching machine or network of malicious robots preparing to take over society. Rather, people are consciously making the decisions for how these systems work and interact with us.
To answer the question of where Roose stands on the optimist or pessimist debate, he deems himself a “suboptimist”. This makes sense considering the subtitle of the book (9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation). The reader gets the sense right away that Futureproof is meant to serve as sort of an ‘automation/AI survival guide’, while prying away from what Roose calls “the binary poles of euphoria and terror” that usually dominate the conversation.
Context and Content
Futureproof is broken up into two parts: “The Machines” and “The Rules”. For the majority of the book, Roose writes from a first-person perspective. This seemingly casual approach is both topical and enjoyable for the reader, almost like you’re talking to a friend.
Part 1: “The Machines”
Part 1 does a solid job of providing more context to the AI/automation debate with plenty of quotes, historical accounts, and interviews. Right off the bat in chapter 1, Roose outlines the most common arguments heard from the AI optimist viewpoint. I’ll admit, reading through each point I found myself guilty of making similar optimistic claims at times!
Roose is careful not to shut down the optimist arguments entirely, but he does make it clear where he sees flaws with their points. If you only get a chance to read one chapter of the book, “Birth of a Suboptimist” is the one you should read. You’ll walk away with a decent understanding of optimist perspectives and pessimist counterarguments, and what’s at stake for humans. Moreover, if you’re someone like me who tends to err on the side of optimism, it’s important to acknowledge the gaps and counterpoints to your viewpoint. Part 1 of this book will help you do just that.
After that, Roose goes on to describe just how widespread automation is in our everyday lives, and how fast it’s expanding. If you think your job is totally safeguarded from automation, you might want to think twice. And if you’re someone who can’t wait for all the tedious and bureaucratic aspects of lives to be automated with what he deems “boring bots”, you might also want consider the possible ramifications that could lead to.
Part 2: “The Rules”
Following the compelling research presented in the first third of the book, Part 2 lays out nine “rules” to help you prepare for the future by investing in your own humanity. Sound extreme? Well it is! But that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary and extremely relevant in 2021.
Roose’s nine rules are:
- Be Surprising, Social, and Scarce
- Resist Machine Drift
- Demote Your Devices
- Leave Handprints
- Don’t be an Endpoint
- Treat AI Like a Chimp Army
- Build Big Nets and Small Webs
- Learn Machine-Age Humanities
- Arm the Rebels
With each rule introduced in the book, Roose gives first-hand accounts of his own struggles and concerns with the extent to which technology affects his daily life. His relatable stories demonstrate the extent to which technology affects his life personally and professionally on a daily basis. Oftentimes, I found myself nodding in bashful agreement.
But beyond just acknowledging the problems, Roose goes a step further to describe how you can work towards overcoming some of these struggles (or avoid them all together) with actionable advice. For instance, he even provides a helpful chart in the Appendix for how he organizes being Surprising, Social, and Scarce.
Do you sometimes feel like life is getting too predictable, or that your decisions are being guided by algorithmic suggestions? Do you find yourself convulsively checking your phone hundreds of times per day? Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m somewhat of a middleman at my job”, or been worried that your job might be replaceable by technology? If your answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy (and likely benefit) from the tips Roose outlines in this book.
Ultimately, Futureproof presents an opportunity for you to think critically about automation and AI. As someone whose job is to create this type of technology, I appreciate the challenging insights Roose puts forth.
At the technical and organizational level, it’s up to individuals to deeply consider the implications of the software we create. These considerations are just as much “human” as they are “technical”. Personally, I’m excited to take Roose’s message to heart and continue developing automation software that is both intentional and responsible.