Reclaiming the technology juggernaut: A review of Azeem Azhar’s ‘Exponential’

  • Azeem Azhar, Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving us Behind and What to Do About It, Cornerstone, 2021
Azeem Azhar

The central message of Azeem Azhar’s new book, ‘Exponential’, is that technology is a force that humanity can direct, rather than a force which will enslave us.  This may seem optimistic, given the alarmingly fast rate of change which new technologies are bringing about in the world, but as well as explaining in clear terms why these changes are happening so fast and why this is a problem, the book also sets out a manifesto for how we can match technology to meet human needs and begin to address some of the social impacts of rapid change.

‘Exponential’ identifies four key technology domains which form the bedrock of the global economy and where capabilities are accelerating at ever-increasing rates while, at the same time costs are plummeting.  The four technologies are computer science, where improvements are driven by faster processors and access to vast data sets; energy, where renewables are causing the price of generating power to drop rapidly; the life sciences, where gene sequencing and synthetic biology are allowing us to develop novel biological components and systems, and manufacturing, where 3D printing is enabling the rapid, localized production of anything from a concrete building to plant-based steaks.  These are all ‘general purpose technologies’: just like electricity, the printing press, and the car, they have broad utility and the potential to change just about everything.

However, while these technologies are taking off at an exponential rate, society has been unable to keep up.  Businesses, laws, markets, working patterns, and other human institutions have at the same time been able to evolve only incrementally and are struggling to adapt.  Azhar calls this the ‘exponential gap’ – the rift between the potential of the technologies and the different types of management that they demand.  Understanding the exponential gap can help explain why we are now facing technology-induced problems like market domination by ‘winner takes all’ businesses such as Amazon, the gig economy, and the spread of misinformation on social media.

The book detail the impacts of the exponential growth in technology on business and employment as well as on geopolitical issues such as trade, conflict, and the global balance of power.  It shows how the ‘exponential gap’ is shaping relations between citizens and society through the power of tech giants which increasingly provide platforms for our conversations and relationships while collecting and commodifying data about us in order to manipulate our choices. Read more

Humans First: A Manifesto for the Age of Robotics. A review of Frank Pasquale’s ‘New Laws of Robotics’

In 2018, the hashtag #ThankGodIGraduatedAlready began trending on China’s Weibo social media platform.  The tag reflected concerns among Chinese students that schools had begun to install the ‘Class Care System’, developed by the Chinese technology company Hanwang.  Cameras monitor pupils’ facial expressions with deep learning algorithms identifying each student, and then classifying their behaviour into various categories – “focused”, “listening”, “writing”, “answering questions”, “distracted”, or “sleeping”. Even in a country where mass surveillance is common, students reacted with outrage.

There are many technological, legal, and ethical barriers to overcome before machine learning can be widely deployed in such ways but China, in its push to overtake the US as world’s leader in artificial intelligence (AI), is racing ahead to introduce such technology before addressing these concerns.  And China is not the only culprit.

Frank Pasquale’s book ‘The New Laws of Robotics: Defending Human Expertise in the Age of AI’ investigates the rapidly advancing use of AI and intelligent machines in an era of automation, and uses a wide range of examples – among which the ‘Class Care System’ is far from the most sinister – to highlight the threats that the rush to robotics poses for human societies.  In a world dominated by corporations and governments with a disposition for centralising control, the adoption of AI is being driven by the dictates of neoliberal capitalism, with the twin aims of increasing profit for the private sector and cutting costs in the public sector.  Read more

Book Review: The Drone Age by Michael J. Boyle

The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace is a great introduction for anyone looking to get an overview of the important issues surrounding the use of military drones. It is clear, engaging and full of insight, as a result of the authors expertise in the field. For those who already very familiar with military drones, there is less that is unexpected but some of the historical context may be new and is certainly worth understanding. The book brings together a substantial amount of information and is highly recommended for people seeking to understand the origins of drone use and the reasons this technology is changing warfare.

Rather than hype up the dangers and speculate about a dystopian future, the book is a well-balanced explanation of where we are, how we got here, what changes are likely to take place in the near future and why the technology itself is ‘disruptive’ (an argument Drone Wars UK has consistently made). The book charts the different ways in which drones have changed numerous practices of war, balancing out the sometimes predictable focus on hunter-killer missions of Predators and Reapers with the surveillance and targeting support that are the work of the majority of most drone operations. Yet Boyle makes clear that these less headline-grabbing operations have also contributed to a step-change in warfare. ‘The Drone Age’ does not stop there however, and looks at the way in which drones have changed peace-keeping and domestic surveillance. The focus is mainly on state (military and police) use but it also covers the UN, human rights organisations, terrorist and rebel groups, and more. Read more

Book review: ‘Visibility equals death’ – living under the martial gaze

In 1978 the then-US under-Secretary of Defense, William Perry, declared that the Pentagon was seeking the ability “to be able to see all high-value targets on the battlefield at any time, to be able to make a direct hit on any target we can see, and to be able to destroy any target we can hit.”  In ‘The Eye of War‘, author Antoine Bousquet argues that military technology is increasingly allowing this objective to be achieved at virtually any time and in virtually any place around the world.

‘The Eye of War’ is the story of the evolution of what Bousquet calls ‘the martial gaze’ – a gaze that threatens anything which falls under it with obliteration.  Today’s military drones are a high profile, modern manifestation, of an ability to spot and destroy a target which has been emerging since the Middle Ages, and ‘The Eye of War’ sets out in vivid terms the histories of the various technologies involved and how they have converged to create a world which, in the words of military scholar Martin Libicki “visibility equals death”.  Read more

Book Review ‘Eyes In The Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare’ by Arthur Holland Michel

Arthur Holland Michel, author of ‘Eyes In The Sky’, is one of the co-founders of the Centre for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York State.  The Centre for the Study of the Drone has done extraordinary work in monitoring the spread in the use of drones, including publication of ‘The Drone Databook’, a detailed country-by-county study of military drone capabilities;  a comprehensive study of counter-drone systems; and a weekly round-up of news and developments in the world of drones.

With this pedigree, and Michel’s background as a journalist reporting on technical issues, we can expect an authoritative and carefully considered account of the topic he has chosen to investigate in this book: the emergence of wide area persistent surveillance systems and their use in warfare and policing.  Based in large part on interviews with insiders, ‘Eyes In The Sky’ gives a balanced but nevertheless worrying account of the dramatic implications that wide area surveillance will have for society.  Read more

Book Review: Death Machines: The Ethics of Violent Technologies by Elke Schwarz

The ethical concerns raised by Elke Schwarz in her new book, Death Machines: The Ethics of Violent Technologies, help situate the use of armed drones in a deeper discussion of our modern political landscape and point to the issues that must be addressed through substantial ethical reasoning. For those not familiar with political theory and ethics, this book is at times quite dense. Nonetheless, it is essential reading for those working with or on the issue of drones, autonomy and AI to engage with the ever-increasing use of violent technologies, regarding both the physical death they inflict and the ethical death in the wake of their use.

Framed by Schwarz’s biopolitical interpretation of Hannah Arendt’s theories, Death Machines asks how we have allowed violent technologies to become the right choice when dealing with problems that threaten society. Hannah Arendt judged that modernity’s movement towards the efficient management of society, relegated plurality and consequently equality among varied people and beliefs. Read more