Thinking about Max Tegmark's Life 3.0

Review by Scott Jordan


Tegmark, Max. Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of artificial Intelligence. (Knopf Publishing Group, New York, 2017).


Cover of Tegmark's Life 3.0


Tegmark takes a different approach to AI and the future by laying out a map of as many possible arguments as he can propose. His pursuit in the beginning is noble as he steers between the extremes he recognizes as Digital Utopians (the extreme posthumanists) and the Luddites and a spectrum of variations in between. The book is very scientifically written and thus everything is categorized in to nice boxes. This makes digesting of thick material easier, but unfortunately limits the scope of his project. There are the different categories of life (1.0,2.0,3.0), intelligence, memory, misconceptions, etc. This categorization helps in progressing the thought, but he does not allow for much interplay or reading between the categories. You can also tell very much that this is written by a physicist as he can quite easily break down major concepts on black holes and energy. Ironically he is, as many rather intelligent types tend to be, confused by the concept of complexity and how it differs from complication.

His diplomacy and scientific approach tend to be his downfall in the end. He tries to give basic definitions based on a bad foundation. He hints at the multiplicity of potential futures, but is contained within paradigmatic rigidity. He lays things out in what is relatively near at hand and far out in the terms of where human intelligence still stands. He also sees disciplines as different points of view, but fails to explore their blending and potential fading in relevance. While he tries not to take a definitive stance one way of the other, he strongly suggests an abandoning of the fear of killer robots and that thanks to the contemporary economic schools of thought, everything will work out in the end. He also recognizes the singularity but is not very creative about a world where technology and biology truly merge. Instead, as the physicist he is, he sees the end result being the product of a rather mainstreamed (and becoming increasingly irrelevant) flavour of astrophysics that remains disconnected from other schools (such as the emergence of a neo-Einsteinian thought) and the philosophy of science.

There is no discussion in this book of what it is to be human. This can be problematic when your subtitle is “Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.” In fact the age of artificial intelligence is not so much defined either. Biology is kept in one corner, while physics, in the other. How can there be singularity here? In today’s world we too often try to look at the body as a machine, one worse yet, a machine to be perfected (in that oh so wonderful capitalistic way of maximizing efficiency and minimalistic approach to sustainability). We forget what organic means (aside from a slightly more expensive section of produce at your nearest grocery store). This discussion needs to be had. There must be a discussion of the body as a machine AND a biological ecosystem. Mr. Tegmark shows no interest in philosophy or interdisciplinary work.

Overall he is taking the extreme Terminator/HAL 9000 style fear of where AI may go (held by such tech elites as Elon Musk) and tries to pacify the narrative. It’s okay in a couple of billion years we will join the eventual end of the universe in one of a thousand possible ways. From the moment he defines intelligence and consciousness the book slowly devolves from one about the potential singularity to a common textbook for a rather close minded graduate seminar on astrophysics. Mr. Tegmark reminds me of why I did not pursue further studies in the Natural Sciences in the American tertiary education system and my fears for all education in general. This book might be hard for the people who need to read it to get into and for those it does appeal to it will not change their obviously more sophisticated opinion on the matter.

Full disclosure. I do not fear Terminator style robotic futures, but I also don’t rule them out. Creations fundamentally act as impartial amplifiers of their creators. Like children to parents they will reveal our greatest flaws and greatest strengths.

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