Review of The Fourth Age, by Byron Reese

Real Future Wisdom, for a More Foresighted and Effective Life

This is an incredible, astonishing book. It’s one of the best I’ve read in the last twenty years, and I read a lot. You can get it tomorrow. Here’s an Amazon link.

The Fourth Age, by the accomplished tech entrepreneur and futurist Byron Reese, offers a deep understanding of human history, a superb vision for where we are going as a species, and clear view of the forces causing technological disruption and opportunity, and the rise of platforms, AI and automation (and soon, robotics) that we see all around us today.

In a world of accelerating change, good leaders need more than ever to understand the things that don’t change, the universals that drive progress. Understanding those universals gives us “future wisdom,” the ability to see humanity’s uneven yet unmistakable journey toward social justice and personal empowerment, and the skills we need to be resilient and see progress opportunities in any future environment. This book offers that wisdom, and is a great read as well.

It summarizes the current competing societal perspectives on the relation between humans and our machines, on accelerating technological change, and on the future of our economy and policy that are (sometimes fervently) held by the various groups engaging in debates today.

The Fourth Age is also a brilliantly concise “philosophy of technology”. Don’t be put off by the p-word. Books like this greatly improve your own views and strategies with regard to tech, help you talk and work better with those you disagree with, and see what data and learning will resolve many of our current debates. They help you see past most of the noise and drama in the headlines. You’ll see where things are likely going, why some change moves so fast, while other change lags far behind, and know what leading indicators (precursors) will confirm your intuitions for what’s coming next.

I wish every graduating high school student, or freshman college student had to read a book like this at the start of their work life or college. Understanding accelerating tech has never been more important. Likewise, every tech-dependent manager and leader (and who isn’t tech-dependent, these days?) would greatly benefit from reading it, and asking where they presently sit with respect to the competing societal positions outlined.

After reading it, no matter your current views, your tech language, strategy, future vision, leadership and investing will all be significantly improved.

Let me close with my own advice on AI, the central topic of The Fourth Age, in my view. You can find more in my post on Deep Agents in my series, Your Personal AI (PAI). I think we can each make five increasingly socially valuable responses to AI, personally, in our organizations, and in our social policy.

Ask yourself how many of these five you are presently doing, and how you can do each more effectively in coming years.

Here are perhaps the Top Five Productive Responses to AI, for each of us:

1. Understand. We can prioritize lifelong learning about AI, recognize the many ways it is advancing and causing disruption and opportunity, and understand who is employing it, both well and poorly, and learn to see past the headline hype to the reality. I think AI advancement, and the increasingly bio-inspired, intimate, and human-partnering nature of our most powerful AI approaches, like deep learning, is the central story of the 21st century. In my view, our leading AI systems will increasingly use natural, biology-derived strategies and algorithms to evolve and develop greater intelligence, immunity, and morality, just like living systems. I see no other easy way forward, and no other way to create statistically trustable and safe AI. The Fourth Age is a great intro to the Great Transition now underway.

2. Invest. We can evaluate the ever-growing use of AI for social value creation, invest a sizeable minority of our savings in the morally better use cases, and profit (virtually every quarter now) from its accelerating global wealth creation. Read Machine | Platform | Crowd (2017) and The Truth Machine: The Future of the Blockchain (2018) for some great investment ideas for 2018. Smarter tech investing will let you capture some of all this predictable, accelerating wealth creation for your future. If you don’t already put 10% or more of your income into tech stocks, or a tech-centric index fund, read If You Can (2014) and Your Money or Your Life (2018). Learn how to spend less, and live more time, relationship, and equity rich. Do it now.

3. Use & Train. We can become power users of the best examples of AI in our personal, organizational, and social lives, thereby training it to become better for everyone else. For one small example, buy one of those smart speakers, if you don’t have one already. Consider buying one of the privacy-centric open source ones, like Mycroft, which forces the proprietary players to take our privacy seriously, and give us all more value. This Summer, get one of the many coming Android-based (a more open, competitive platform than Apple) speakers that comes with a screen, and put it in your kitchen or bedroom. Use it make regular video calls to your friends and family. All that bandwidth growth will increasingly force telcos to give us pipes fat enough to run open internet video, so we can escape today’s crappy walled gardens, like Xfinity or Netflix, and get open streaming video on our smart TVs and phones. Today, our leading AI companies are on the edge of creating Personal AIs (PAIs), agents which can learn and defend our our individual values and interests. The emergence of PAIs will be a massively socially empowering advance. See my Medium series, Your Personal AI, for more on that disruptive future.

4. Recommend & Share. We can broadly distribute the bounties of AI, by recommending and sharing more affordable (or free), open source, transparent, trust-building, demonetizing, democratizing, and crowd-benefiting products, services, platforms, and businesses. Read The Platform Revolution (2017) for examples of companies currently leading that sharing process, and The Truth Machine for some of the newest blockchain, crowd-benefiting approaches to collective sharing, demonetization, democratization, and personal empowerment.

5. Subsidize & Create. We can all co-create better AI by subsidizing the creators (paying them more than their current economic value to us), and directly employing AI developers, when that makes sense. We can also subsidize more youth around the world learning how to code and build, while recognizing that coding, as a practice, will be increasingly automated by deep learning development environments themselves in coming years, as Tom Hulme argues in a recent Wired Opinion piece. What kids need most, today and in the future, is to learn how to better think and build, and to work better with technology and with each other, on global, highly connected, AI-enabled platforms and teams.

I’m a professional futurist. I work to help clients create better individual, organizational, and social foresight in a world of accelerating change. I’ve written a free online (600+ page) guide to good organizational foresight process, and some stories about our disruptive 21st century futures, which you can find (less a couple of chapters) at http://www.foresightguide.com.

For more good foresight books for yourself and your team, you might like my list of Top 20 Foresight Books in the Guide. I wish you great health, happiness and foresight in the amazing and challenging years ahead.


John Smart is CEO of Foresight University and author of The Foresight Guide. You can find him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or YouTube.
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