BOOK REVIEW

“Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation” by Kevin Roose. New York: Random House, 2021. 217 pages, $27 (hardcover).

Many of us pay greater attention to our phones and computers these days than to the living people around us, but device addiction is only one of many ways electronic gimcracks, software and especially artificial intelligence programs threaten to take charge of our lives, making us more and more machine-like ourselves. In “Futureproof,” Kevin Roose, a technology correspondent for the New York Times, outlines the situation as it currently exists, speculates on where it is headed and presents nine “rules” for protecting our humanity from the growing encroachment of machines.

Roose is no Luddite. He appreciates all the wonderful things AI may accomplish in medical and scientific research or precision design and manufacturing, but he also knows – and illustrates with a wealth of lively examples – that AI and machine learning can be used to micro-manage, manipulate and eventually replace human beings.

The book opens with an overview of how we are already prodded, measured, evaluated and very often replaced by computers and their algorithms. In this age of AI, Roose said, “there is no such thing as an inherently robot-proof job.” Already, accounting, medicine, law and finance fields are opening to automation. Machines have been shown to read X-rays and CT scans better than trained humans can. Armies of law clerks have been replaced by sites like Google and Lexis. Wells Fargo estimates that some 200,000 of its finance employees will be replaced by programmed operations in the near future. Online chat bots are even nibbling away at psychological counseling – with surprisingly acceptable results.

In short, vast numbers of workers will be displaced fairly soon by ever-advancing automation. And those who still have jobs are hardly out of the woods. Workers at a growing number of companies are constantly surveilled and evaluated by impersonal computer watchdogs. Doctors and lawyers are hounded by management programs designed to increase their billing. Some companies have even turned over hiring and firing decisions to human resource algorithms. What could be more dehumanizing than losing your career to a headquarters computer perhaps 1,000 miles from where you work?

But employment is only one way computers manage and shape us. Roose widens his net to include how social media steer users toward the most striking (and often misleading) content by highlighting pages that get the most clicks; how the internet herds users into information silos where the same views echo endlessly; how algorithms created by mostly White, young, affluent computer hotshots can discriminate against other classes; and the truly ominous potential of things like facial recognition and “pre-policing” – letting computers predict where crimes are most likely and deploying police and adapting rules accordingly.

All this is already going on. Computers monitor workers’ every keystroke. Unregulated emotion recognition tools use video cameras to tell by their “microexpressions” whether users – employees, interviewees, even schoolchildren – are interested, bored, confused or dishonest. You get the picture. We likely face a future in which we come increasingly under the thumb of computer programs and programmers.

What to do? Here’s where the rules come in. Roose presents nine of them concerning things we should do as individuals and things we must do as a society to keep computers in their place. Some are strangely named (the one odd feature of an otherwise user-friendly book), but all are well intended and useful. They range from job-preserving measures – steps you can take toward developing creativity and a flexible outlook, adding a personal dimension to the services you provide, and sharpening your teamwork skills to become less replaceable – to ways to promote personal and social digital wellness.

On the personal level, Roose presents a 30-day detox plan that brought his own phone time from six hours a day down to one and a half, along with ways to escape becoming addicted to digital recommendations and online echo chambers. If you don’t resist these, he said, “who you are is who the machines think you are, which is also what they want you to be.” He goes into detail, too, on how to know whether your job is likely to be computerized.

Other “rules” fall more in the realm of public policy. As Roose explains, with several appalling examples, computers have no emotional or moral sense. We must do all we can to resist putting them in charge of things needing human judgment, including areas where they are already in use – hiring, firing, sentencing, probation hearings, school admissions, lending decisions and a host of other dubious uses.

We must also prepare for the coming employment drought by strengthening social safety nets. Government programs for displaced workers, for sure, but also promoting families, unions, churches and other groups for the help they offer in hard times.

Finally, Rule 9 tells us to “Arm the Rebels.” What Roose means here is that we must support movements for worker protections, media regulation and limits on ways computer surveillance and decision-making can be used.

To bring all this down closer to earth, Roose describes specific steps he has taken to follow the “rules” himself and adds an annotated list of books for further reading. All in all, his book is an important, timely and well-written and researched primer on “how to be a human in a world increasingly arranged by and for machines.”

– Reviewed by Joe Glaser, Western Kentucky University English Department.

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