Terrified of the AI apocalypse? This professor says you’re wrong

Mildly anxious that uncontrolled AI threatens to plunge civilisation into a dystopian hellscape? A tad alarmed about surrendering the future to superintelligences without human essence, conscience or heart? A Cambridge political philosopher wants you to calm down, dear, and listen carefully: we sold our souls to the Devil long ago.

David Runciman, 4th Viscount Runciman of Doxford, centre-Left popular philosopher, and teacher of politics and history at Cambridge University, has cultivated a reputation for being something of a contrarian. When it comes to whipping up jocular outrage – such as over whether six-year-olds should be given the vote – his skills are indisputable. Quirky, meditational, disturbing, his latest book The Handover aims to sit squarely in the sub-genre that was commercially established with Yuval Noah Harari’s blockbuster Sapiens. 

The Handover is pithily but not arrestingly written. Rather than being an everyman’s book in the tradition of Harari, this is a complicated tome made up of several threads that are, quite deliberately, left lingering in the air, rather than being neatly sewn together. In the end, though, it offers enough original thinking to make it worth powering through.

Rather than imagining a future divided into bio-hacked superhumans peering down with pitying revulsion at a mass underbelly of “useless” humans, the dystopia Runciman paints is classically Hobbesian. He aims to convince us that there is nothing really new about the dawn of sex robots and self-driving cars; it is but the latest twist in the story of the Leviathan.

According to Runciman, our journey towards uncontrolled AI began not with the invention of the computer, but in the 17th century, with the creation of the nation state, and into the 18th and 19th centuries with the emergence of the modern corporation. For Runciman these – not AI – were the original thinking machines: man-made entities that are more than the sum of their individuals, having come to develop a thrusting logic, even a sort of consciousness, of their own.

Runciman lays out just how powerful these artificial men have proved, for good and ill through the ages – waging wars, guzzling colossal resources, amassing great wealth, and accumulating eye-watering debts. For Runciman, it is imperative that we understand this, because the killer question is not how humans will relate to machines, but how the different thinking machines – the state, corporation and AI – will relate to each other.

In a world that, since the dying-off of the existentialists, has become strangely bereft of celebrity philosophers to offer sweeping takes on the pathologies of modernity and how on earth we should deal with them, Runciman’s conclusion is frustratingly impotent. The question of what to do about AI, he says, is not simply about preferring a human-centric future over an artificial one. Having already sold our souls to something more powerful than ourselves, we are merely left to decide what kind of artificiality we are willing to live with – one of human-like machines (AI), or one of machine-like human beings (states, corporations).

Even Runcimanesque’s wackier ideas, suggesting for example that we should allow robots to open bank accounts, can’t overcome The Handover’s bleak tone. Nor are his more utopian offerings particularly reassuring. After critiquing Dominic Cummings’s assessment that the UK is broken because it no longer attracts the best people, his remedy boils down to ironing out market capitalism’s inefficiencies through big data and machine learning.

Runciman’s argument that we long ago outsourced world-building to thinking machines doesn’t clearly hang together. He claims, for example, that the rapid spread of the nation state and corporate superintelligence explains the rapid industrialisation of the past two centuries. But this overlooks the great puzzle of why the industrial revolution occurred not in the East but in the West. 

The most compelling answer to this mystery is not that the West was particularly adept at constructing sprawling leviathans (China’s resplendent bureaucratic tradition throws cold water on that idea) but that Western leviathans still left considerable room for individual entrepreneurship, ingenuity and agency – the James Watts, Matthew Boultons, Simeon Norths and Henry Fords; the eccentric individuals that made America’s “entrepreneurial state”.

Elsewhere, Runciman claims that machines know us better than we do. Is this really true, or do algorithms not lure us into believing in one-dimensional versions of ourselves, keeping us captive to who we were yesterday, recommending what we should watch, listen to, read, eat and wear based on what we have consumed before? If this is true, then the existential question AI poses cannot simply be whether or not it can constructively integrate itself into the state-corporate leviathan, with humanity watching from the sidelines, as Runciman frames it. Surely it is whether we – as critical, free-thinking human beings – will be able to hold all of these entities to account, by cutting through their complex layers of cant, scrutinising their attitudes and assumptions.

The Handover’s merits are as a slightly off-the-wall conversation-starter, inviting more fascinating questions than compelling answers. Those hungry for humane takes on the existential issue of our time may be left a little disappointed. 

The Handover is published by Profile at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

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Sherelle Jacobs