Are we fighting and tinkering our way to destruction – or finding solutions to every problem? We take the temperature of the new season’s smart thinking

Autumn's science books weigh up humanity's future options

In poorer countries, charging your phone can involve walking miles (Image: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters/Corbis)

CHANGE is in the air; what better time to consider humanity’s end – and its possible salvation?

Any artificial intelligence that makes better versions of itself will rapidly outcompete humans – the so-called “technological singularity”. But will it “want” to? Can AI “want” anything? The Technological Singularity (MIT Press, $15.95/£10.95) by Murray Shanahan runs through various scenarios, not all apocalyptic.

Back in the present, Jim Rogers’s Lighting the World: Transforming our energy future by bringing electricity to everyone (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99) points out that 1.2 billion people still don’t have electricity. But bringing power to the poorest should be easy: there is no old infrastructure in the way. And solving the energy problems of sub-Saharan Africa will provide a blueprint for weaning the developed world off oil. Rogers ran Duke Energy, the largest electric power company in the US, for 7 years; now the elite take note of him.

Big science and big engineering have adapted well to today’s asymmetric conflicts – too well for Andrew Cockburn’s taste. Kill Chain: Drones and the rise of high-tech assassins (Verso, £20/Henry Holt, $28) lays bare the political and moral consequences of leveraging technology to address the amorphous dreads of intelligence-starved diplomats. Pre-emption as a strategy comes under fire (as it were), as does the idea of fighting wars with remote cameras that are, according to one veteran, “no better than looking at Google Earth through a straw”.

The more virtual our lives become, the more we take craft seriously. Colin McGinn’s Prehension: The hand and the emergence of humanity (MIT Press, $24.95/£17.95) provides the scientific argument for craft, linking various human tics, habits and anxieties to our ability to manipulate the physical world. Singularity enthusiasts take note: human intelligence (the only one we know much about) has had hundreds of thousands of years to become very odd indeed. Copying it will be hard.

By Simon Ings

Magazine issue 3038 published 12 September 2015

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