Book Review: ‘Futurproof’ | Community


“Standing the Test of Time: 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 more attention to our phones and computers these days than to the living people around us, but device addiction is just one of the many ways that electronic gadgets, software and most importantly artificial intelligence programs threaten to take over our lives, making us more and more like ourselves. In “Futureproof,” Kevin Roose, technology correspondent for the New York Times, describes the situation as it currently exists, speculates on its direction, and presents nine “rules” to protect our humanity from the growing encroachment of machines.

Roose is not a Luddite. He appreciates all the wonderful things AI can accomplish in medical and scientific research or precision design and manufacturing, but he also knows – and illustrates with a multitude of living examples – that AI and learning machines can be used to micro-manage, manipulate and eventually replace humans.

The book opens with an overview of how we are already being pushed, measured, evaluated and very often replaced by computers and their algorithms. In the age of AI, Roose said, “there is no inherently robot-proof work.” Already, the fields of accounting, medicine, law and finance are opening up to automation. Machines have been shown to read X-rays and CT scans better than trained humans. Armies of forensic scientists have been replaced by sites like Google and Lexis. Wells Fargo estimates that some 200,000 of its financial employees will be replaced by operations scheduled in the near future. Online chatbots even nibble on psychological advice – with surprisingly acceptable results.

In short, a large number of workers will be displaced quite quickly by the ever-changing automation. And those who still have jobs are barely out of the woods. Workers in a growing number of companies are constantly monitored and evaluated by impersonal IT observers. Doctors and lawyers are hunted down by management programs intended to increase their billing. Some companies have even left hiring and firing decisions to human resource algorithms. What could be more dehumanizing than losing your career to a computer at headquarters maybe 1,000 miles from where you work?

But jobs are just a way for computers to manage and shape us. Roose expands its network to include how social media steers users to the most striking (and often deceptive) content by highlighting which pages get the most clicks; how the Internet locks users into information silos where the same views endlessly resonate; how algorithms created by mostly white, young and wealthy computers can discriminate against other classes; and the really disturbing potential of things like facial recognition and “pre-policing”: letting computers predict where crimes are most likely and deploying policing and adapting the rules accordingly.

All of this is already underway. Computers monitor every keystroke of workers. Unregulated emotion recognition tools use video cameras to tell by their “microexpressions” whether users – employees, respondents, even school children – are interested, bored, confused or dishonest. You get the picture. We are probably facing a future in which we will be increasingly under the thumb of computer programs and programmers.

What to do? Here’s where the rules come in. Roose presents nine of the things we should do as individuals and the things we need to do as a society to keep computers in their place. Some have strange names (the only strange characteristic of an otherwise user-friendly book), but all are well-meaning and useful. They range from job preservation measures – steps you can take to develop creativity and a flexible outlook, add a personal dimension to the services you provide, and hone your teamwork skills to become less replaceable – to ways to promote personal and social digital well-being.

On a personal level, Roose presents a 30-day detox plan that reduced his phone time from six hours a day to an hour and a half, as well as ways to escape addiction to digital referrals and bedrooms. echo online. If you don’t resist these, he said, “who you are is what machines think you are, which is also what they want you to be.” It also details how to tell if your work is likely to be computerized.

Other “rules” are more in the realm of public policy. As Roose explains, with several appalling examples, computers make no emotional or moral sense. We must do everything possible not to put them in charge of things requiring human judgment, including areas where they are already used – hiring, firing, sentencing, probation hearings, school admissions, loan decisions and a host of other questionable uses.

We also need to prepare for the next jobs drought by strengthening social safety nets. Government programs for displaced workers, of course, but also promoting families, unions, churches and other groups for the help they offer in difficult times.

Finally, rule 9 tells us to “Arm the rebels”. What Roose means here is that we need to support movements for worker protection, media regulation, and limits on the ways in which computer surveillance and decision making can be used.

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

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

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