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Publisher's Summary

A call-to-arms about the broken nature of artificial intelligence, and the powerful corporations that are turning the human-machine relationship on its head.

We like to think that we are in control of the future of "artificial" intelligence. The reality, though, is that we - the everyday people whose data powers AI - aren't actually in control of anything. When, for example, we speak with Alexa, we contribute that data to a system we can't see and have no input into - one largely free from regulation or oversight. The big nine corporations - Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, Microsoft, IBM and Apple - are the new gods of AI and are short-changing our futures to reap immediate financial gain. 

In this book, Amy Webb reveals the pervasive, invisible ways in which the foundations of AI - the people working on the system, their motivations, the technology itself - is broken. Within our lifetimes, AI will, by design, begin to behave unpredictably, thinking and acting in ways which defy human logic. The big nine corporations may be inadvertently building and enabling vast arrays of intelligent systems that don't share our motivations, desires, or hopes for the future of humanity.

Much more than a passionate, human-centered call-to-arms, this book delivers a strategy for changing course, and provides a path for liberating us from algorithmic decision-makers and powerful corporations.

©2019 Amy Webb (P)2019 Hachette Audio

Critic Reviews

"Webb's assessments are based on analyses of patent filings, policy briefings, interviews and other sources. She paints vivid pictures of how AI could benefit the average person, via precision medicine or smarter dating apps.... Her forecasts are provocative and unsettlingly plausible." (Science News)

"Her writing is very clear and accessible, and the interesting analogies she uses to illustrate what may occur when algorithms make decisions for us make for compelling reading. This fascinating look at how AI will continue to revolutionize human experiences in unimaginable ways will appeal to anyone interested in AI, human-computer interactions, and machine learning in the private and public sectors." (Booklist)

"Webb teaches us to listen...[she] combines well-researched, reader-friendly insights on Google, drones and artificial intelligence with a system of questions you can bring to your next strategy meeting..." (Chicago Tribune)

What listeners say about The Big Nine

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  • McKane
  • 13-03-2019

Trusting to a Fault

The perspective taken with respect to the G-MAFIA is largely uncritical and overly hopeful. Rather than delve into the corrupting influence of profit on the G-MAFIA (e.g. Russian involvement in the 2016 election via Facebook and pedophilia group formation mediated by the YouTube recommendation algorithms), the author pins these shortcomings generally on social pressures to produce advanced AI applications (there's no support for this claim given). This perspective then taints the whole argument of the book, which is that we need to support the G-MAFIA in AI development rather than regulate or file for anti-trust suits. As an AI researcher in this space, I have seen absolutely no indication that the G-MAFIA actually ever esteems the public good over their bottom line, so to assume that if we simply stop expecting big advances in AI (and that the companies are made sufficiently diverse) is not only irresponsible, it's dangerous.

My other main gripe with this book is that China's soon to be preeminence in AI is used to justify nearly every proposed course of action. I for one am certainly terrified of China's AI plan, but I don't think that it justifies throwing caution to the wind by simply trusting the G-MAFIA to fight the good fight if they pick up enough diversity (this is the only mechanism of changing the G-MAFIA that the author argues for).

All-in-all, the author gives a decent run-down of current AI capabilities and provides some thoughtful discussion of where AI is headed, but the very premise of the argument seems, to me at least, to be up for debate. It would have been nice to see at least some of that debate in this work.

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  • Kathy
  • 26-03-2019

Interesting but Frustrating

This should have been be a five star book. Amy Webb is smart, engaging and knowledgeable. Ironically, it is when her own biases grow so strong that her predictions loose all credibility.

I do not agree with Webb's foundational thinking. For example, a major Webb warning is based on the idea that AI is being developed by small tribes of men lacking diversity. Microsoft, more than 20 years ago, employed people from all over the world. Tech companies are diverse. Tech companies care about intellectual horsepower above all else and they search the globe for the best and brightest. It is not about country, education, religion, being neurotypical or personal hygiene. Webb predicts this narrow tribe of similar men will forget about transgender people who will be forced into humiliating situations. That's not likely. I remember a man sending a letter to everyone in his building explaining he would be using the woman's restroom while going through the long process of changing his gender. He was considered courageous and this was in the last millennia.

Webb predicts these similar men will only hire more men like them in the future. That is an absurd prediction from someone who spends time thinking about the future. Girls, future women, are surpassing boys. Most collages have more girls than boys. For the ivy league, it can be as high as eight qualified girl applicants to one boy. Volunteer in a classroom and it will not take long to see how much better girls are doing than boys.

More importantly, Webb's predictions about China are incredibly offensive. In Webb's catastrophic scenario China AIs kill every American. Readers visualize children dying in our arms before we die from China's AIs. This was just gross. Webb herself talks about China not having political problems with other countries. She talks about China helping other countries with roads and infrastructure and this is true. China does not want to kill all Americans. This was one of the most disappointing things I have ever read. This is not consistent with China's historical roots and is manipulative in a dangerous way.

I gave the book three stars because the beginning is good. It is a shame that while Webb predicts the bias of software engineers will be a huge problem, it is her own bias that destroys what could have been a great book.

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  • Jeffrey D
  • 06-01-2020

Not much thought put into this book

I could not finish this book. She tells us that China is growing fast. That there are big companies using AI. That developers tend to be white people. That AI is to some extent a black box. But I did not see any particular insight into AI. It was more a book about bias and what she calls, in pop-sociology, "tribes." But if you pretend to write about one subject, and really write about another, the danger is that the real topic will be one the author does not know much about. I admit that I got less than halfway through the book before remembering that I am not going to live forever.

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  • David Larson
  • 04-04-2019

Best AI book I've read since Bostrom

The title is a little misleading. it's not just about the big 9. It's about politics and society and how other countries (China) are outcompeting us in AI and will very soon overtake the US. This book is a big wake up call. The American military spends too much on hardware (because that's where the lobby money is) and not enough on scientific research (especially into AI). China has our number. Unfortunately I don't see a scenario where we reform our corrupt appropriations system in time not to become a servant to China by around mid-century. Good book though.

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  • Tony
  • 03-10-2020

Wow

This book is racist. It’s unbelievably one sided and offers a militaristic strategy to fend off an imminent attack by China in all the scenarios presented. It is written in an “us” vs “them” framework, and is difficult to listen to. The intro offers a pretty good recap of AI and displays some of the critical lack of diversity in the American tech sector, but this is the book’s only strength. I believe the scenarios presented in this book are myopic and dangerously racist.

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  • Andrew Mazibrada
  • 28-02-2020

Some good points, but naive and one-sided

Some good points made, and a somewhat useful summary of the BAT, but all Webb's points are dealt with in more detail in better works on AI ethics and futures. Webb's analysis is naive, simplistic, and lacking balance. She places too much trust in the altruism of the G-Mafia, rejects regulation of any kind, asserts the need for a coalition that is not in the commercial interests of the G-Mafia and which flies in the face of everything we know about cognitive biases and business practices (take one look at climate change and see that businesses put businesses first even in the serious position we are now in), adopts a frighteningly McCarthyist paranoia in respect of China, and is deeply enmeshed in free-market solutions and innovation as the answer to all our problems, despite the powerful critiques of capitalism in many recent works on AI. No mention is made of Shoshana Zuboff's work on Surveillance Capitalism which, given Webb's stance, ought to have been dealt with in some way (Zuboff's theories predate Webb's publication, even though the books were released within months of each other). This highlights what I assert is a quite unscholarly work - she asks us to trust her in her analysis of the G-Mafia, as though her place as a trusted insider gives her value, without offering us evidence to support that trust. She continually uses adverbs like 'admirably' to describe their conduct, especially that of Google, which flies in the face of what Zuboff's far more detailed and scholarly work offers us. Essentially, Zuboff backs up her claims with evidence. Webb does not. There are better books.

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  • William
  • 13-11-2021

The coming conflict

We use artificial intelligence every day, though we may not always know it. AI is what determines what should be on your FB page. It’s how you can type just a few words into Google and find an almost instant answer to almost any question. It schedules flights, trains, traffic lights, and predicts the weather. It is the backbone of our financial systems, the power grid, and the retail supply chain. But, where is it going from here? It has certainly improved our lives in many ways. But, it has also brought many unexpected (and sometimes, expected but ignored) problems and as AI makes more and more decisions for us, how do we know that it will make the better decisions? Will it eventually get so smart that it learns to manipulate us and is that already happening in social media? Then there are the various movie scenarios where robots try to take over the world, from “2001” to “iRobot.”

Amy Webb wrote this book because she sees the potential for tremendous good as well as danger. She starts with an overview of the history and present situation of AI in the US and China. She then gives us three potential future scenarios, one optimistic, one pragmatic, and one catastrophic. Finally she suggests concrete actions that we can take to ensure that the path AI takes is the optimistic scenario.

Amy focuses on what she calls the Big Nine companies that are at the forefront of developing AI. Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM and Apple, of which she collectively uses the acronym G-MAFIA are American and Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (acronym BAT), are Chinese. The American’s may have gotten a slight head start, but the US keeps scrimping and cutting back on basic research. The mantra seems to be that we don’t need government to pick and choose winners and should let the free market do that for us. That may hold true for the implementation of what is learned from that research, but there are some things that government should direct. To do otherwise means that we are turning the future of our nation over to Wall Street (which really controls corporate boards) and those profit interests do not always align with what’s best for the nation as a whole, for our individual liberties, our communities, and our democratic ideals.

Meanwhile, China is pouring tons of resources into AI research and that is tied to China’s ambitions to become the sole world superpower.  Webb notes that in July 2017, the Chinese government unveiled its Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan to become the global leader in AI by the year 2030. AI is based not on programming but on allowing computers to learn from data and China’s massive population of 1.4 billion citizens gives it the largest natural resource in the era of AI: human data. Since China doesn’t have the privacy and security restrictions of the United States and Europe, they have unfettered access to purer data. China has always controlled the media but past efforts amounted to clumsy sloganeering. Now, it can respond quickly to any shift in public opinion and it sees AI as a way to shape the news to spread positive information that supports the current political direction. 

So, the middle part of the book gives three different scenarios for the future and the third one is very bleak, but not in the way that Hollywood has envisioned. Webb imagines a future, not of robots taking over, but of autocratic systems controlling our experience and understanding in such a way that people will naturally accept that new order, and it looks a lot like China today on steroids. 

Based on this, Webb suggests a better alternative, that we step up and put money into basic research and develop a rational, cohesive strategy. 

I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with Webb in so many ways as I read this book. She clearly shows how advances in AI have already benefited us and will benefit us even more, particularly in areas like healthcare, construction, communications, and so many other professions. At the same time, I cringed at some of her other descriptions of the “improvements” that it would bring. There was too much emphasis on simplifying our lives and making things easier for us, and I am one who is an early adopter of AI products. I am sitting under a floor lamp that is programmed to change to a warmer color of light in the evenings and start dimming around 11:00 to remind me that it’s time to get to bed. I also felt that Webb seemed to put too much faith in the potential for technology and algorithms to take us in the directions that we really want to go and I don’t really see us developing into AI “tribes” divided by which corporation we follow. 

But, I found myself in strong agreement with her analysis of the pervasive, invisible ways in which the foundations on which AI is built — from the people working on the system, to their motivations, to the algorithms used, and even to the faith that so many of its builders have in it — is broken. I agree strongly with her passionate call to change course, to increase fundamental research, to liberate us from the algorithmic control of powerful corporations and the CEOs who use it only to increase their profits and market share with little thought of the effect on our community, on people, and on our democracy. Where does the money come from? We are the nation that landed on the moon and that’s only one of our huge grand-scale investments over history. The trans-continental railway was a massive investment and most of that came from government grants and at a time when the west was still quite wild. It was also at a time when our nation was not rich and in fact had just come through an extremely costly Civil War. But, we didn’t see it as an expense. It was an investment. Today, we are among the wealthiest nations and yet we are among the stingiest in terms of research and infrastructure among developed nations. Private corporations will only invest in what benefits them. We need to invest in what benefits the US and all its people. And, whether you completely buy into Webb’s scenarios or not, there is still enough in what is already happening that should tell us that it’s time to step in. 

So, do I recommend this book. I’d give a qualified “yes.” She did well at explaining the problem and summarizing the current situation and that is serious enough that more people should understand it. I was less impressed with her three scenarios. I can see some of the directions that she is describing and agree to many of the dangers and benefits, but felt that it was too simplistic and distracted from the main point. As for her recommendations, I again agree to a point. We need to be willing to invest in things that benefit us and that defend our nation and this is certainly one of those things. Future wars may well be fought more with AI than with missiles and armies. But, I don’t have as much faith in algorithms as she does. But, her main point is still valid. It’s time to act and we need to realize that we are already behind the curve on this one.

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  • Ivan b
  • 04-08-2021

Starts good but fails to hold on to that

The book begins with interesting facts about A.I. In the first chapters it it fails to hold on to that and turns into a SJW diary

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  • Emma Hunt
  • 10-06-2021

Mesmerizing...A must read for ...

Anyone with an eye to the future. This book is a wake up call for anyone and everyone who may have been half asleep or absentmindedly accepting terms of service.

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  • Diana Wu David
  • 29-01-2021

Glimpse into a global future

The scenarios in Amy Webb’s well researched book will certainly give you pause but are well worth reading. Big marks for being global in nature, though definitely from a US perspective. Well worth a read/listen. I’d love to see the other side - a similar book written from an Asian perspective.

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  • Ammm
  • 14-08-2021

Good information but too much time on scenarios

A lot of really interesting information but the length of the scenarios made it difficult to get through. If you stopped listening and went back to it it was tougher to remember what scenario you were listening to and whether it was fact or a scenario.

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