Are we hurtling towards technological dystopia, or a futuristic fantasy world in which our hardware and software innovations provide a human experience that excels in almost every way compared to that which we know today? That’s the basic question at the heart of Peter Nowak’s Humans 3.0 , a survey of our technical development, which incorporates some futurism peering forward along the path leading to a potential Kurzweilean Singularity. Nowak deftly guides us to a complex, credible and positive conclusion throughout his book-length inquiry, but I still can’t help but wonder if some of the answers he provides along the journey come too readily.
Nowak, a Canadian technology journalist with a decades-long career and impressive publishing history, has created in Humans 3.0 something akin to an anti-venom for the kind of fear-mongering technophobic portrayals of robot-controlled, despotic human futures that tend to pervade a lot of sci-fi texts, and that all too-often find their way into news media accounts of developments in AI, robotics and general computing. The book presents a view of tech’s progress that is much more in keeping with what you might find on blogs like this one, where the audience is more inclined to take for granted that innovation and technological advancement are by definition positive outcomes. But it specifically doesn’t take that for granted, and instead sets about building a case, supported by interviews from subject matter experts around the world, as well as information gleaned from a strong collection of studies.
Towards the end of the book, Nowak acknowledges that he set out with an overall optimism about technology and its overall beneficial effects on human progress, but ultimately the positivity of the book’s message surprises even the author, by his own admission. And as was his goal, Nowak has indeed made a case that supports that message, and one that indeed proves useful for the book’s apparent audience, which struck me as likely a more general reader with an interest in consumer tech, but lacking a deep and pervasive knowledge. The historical survey and scene-setting Nowak offers is interesting and useful even if you’re already familiar with much of what he’s discussing, but it’s structured such that readers lacking deep context shouldn’t ever find themselves lost.
Optimism, in a book that tackles this subject matter that isn’t already aimed at the tech faithful comes across as refreshing, genuine and convincing in Humans 3.0 . That convincing bit, though, at times owes more to Nowak’s skill with prose than to the facts on hand. In these instances, the book can feel a little like the musings of a technofuturistic Dr. Paingloss: All is for the best, after all, in this, the best of all possible evolutions of human scientific and technological progress.
Consider, for instance, Nowak’s answer to the valid concern regarding what humans will do as robots assume responsibility for more of the labor that once provided them jobs. In lieu of numbers to offer reassurances of newly created roles and opportunities, Nowak indeed points to the fact that while The Great Recession has resulted in what qualifies as a recovery according to many economic measures, it still hasn’t seen employment rates rise along the lines we’ve seen with previous recoveries. Nowak concludes that this is in part because companies are doubling productivity without resorting to traditional producers, embracing technological solutions in stead.
Humans will eventually get over this setback, which Nowak characterizes as temporary, simply by coming up with new things for people to do. There’s a lack of jobs mostly because we aren’t yet creative enough to come up with new ones. Entrepreneurship as a blanket human enterprise then gets the nod as the eventual source of new, rewarding gigs for those who’ve seen their old ones disappear.
For me, this point is less well-made than the others Nowak brings up. It seems more like hand-waving, especially given the rigor of the rest of the argument made in Humans 3.0 . Which isn’t to say it’s not a valid theory: Rather, it just seems much more like educated guesswork than anything else presented. Likewise, when social media is used toward the end of the book as an example of how we might come to think of humanity as a universal extended family, I couldn’t help but want for at least a discussion of how its use can also result in extreme alienation, such as in the most aggressive forms of online trolling and cyber-bullying.
These criticisms don’t undermine Nowak’s larger argument, however, even if I am left more skeptical of the conclusions of Humans 3.0 than Nowak himself. The book has a clear bent, but it doesn’t make that a secret, nor does it feel as though it’s purposefully obfuscating anything in order to make its points. It’s also an extremely easy and pleasant read, which has clearly been thoroughly researched and which expertly weaves in a good number of well-chosen first-hand sources.
If you’re at all interested in Kurzweil, the Singularity, initiatives like Google’s Calico or visionary technologists like Elon Musk, Humans 3.0 provides an accessible, enjoyable starting point that avoids some of the fawning and complexity of other futurist texts. I’m still not convinced about the certainty of the coming techno utopia, but I’m far less sure I’ll wind up enslaved to unfeeling robotic overlords.