WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us by Tim O’Reilly [Book Review]

In his provocatively titled booked, WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, Tim O’Reilly discusses the technology that often makes us go “WTF?”, and why we as a society, not the tech itself, are the ones with the power to decide how it will shape the future. I was pleased to see O’Reilly take an optimistic stance on the issue, since what’s often portrayed in the media is a future overrun by unfriendly AI that steals our jobs and ruins our lives. Personally, I don’t think we’ll have a future akin to I, Robot. I envision a society that harnesses the power of technology and artificial intelligence to enable us to be more productive and do more meaningful work, rather than be put out of work. O’Reilly’s opinion is similar. This post is a summary, of his book, WTF?, with a sentence per chapter.

Summary

The future of our jobs, and in turn our society, can be seen by looking back to disruptive technologies of the past, and by considering fringe innovators of the present. In doing this, it becomes clear that technology kills professions, but not jobs.

The business model for the new economy is one that replaces materials with information, augments its workers, has a magical user experience, and creates on-demand services, forming not just a company, but a platform. For example, between 1998 to 2005, Amazon and Google successfully harnessed collective information (the global brain), and shaped the future into the one we live in today. Companies need to create two-sided networks that create value for both a network of users, and a network of customers. A company should “think in promises,” that is, begin with expectations of the finished product, and achieve this product through the work of highly aligned and highly autonomous employees.

Current government-imposed regulations try to impose old rules onto new technology, and this makes no sense. Government is a platform upon which our economy is built, and must be brought up to date with the current technology. With media largely being consumed via Facebook and Google, we’re living in a not a democracy but an algocracy- whose black box do you trust? The design of a system, i.e. its algorithms, determines its outcome. We choose the algorithms, and they shape our results, our company, and our society.

The rules of our economy encourage allocating gains to consumers and shareholders, with losses to workers and taxpayers, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The current metric of success is shareholder value, but maybe it should be job creation or income growth.

As routine cognitive tasks are commoditized by AI, the human touch could become the source of competitive advantage. We should put AI to work to thoughtfully and intentionally create more value for society than it’ll disrupt. Let’s forget about disruption, and craft policies that encourage, support, and reward the kinds of work that only humans can do for each other. The future isn’t imagined- it’s up to us to build it.

Rating for WTF?: 5 out of 5. I really loved it. Tim O’Reilly is clearly an innovator in his own right, who has done what he preaches in his book: through his publishing business, he’s created hundreds upon thousands of jobs, to be sure, through education. His arguments are backed up by facts and embellished with anecdotes. Combining this with a bit of fun name dropping and self promotion, it makes for a fascinating thought-provoking read. I’d highly recommend it and would love to see how other people like it!

First book I’ve given 5 stars for a while, and first on my blog!

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