Book Review: What Technology Wants

This review first appeared on the Drone Law Today Podcast

What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants is an important book. Its author, Kevin Kelly, is a sage.

Mr. Kelly is the rarest of authors: a futurist that is consistently right, consistently insightful, and willing to share the wildest reaches of his mind with the rest of us.

This book is both about what technology is and what it will be. These sound like simple questions, but they aren’t. Not by a long shot.

So what is technology?

It’s everything.

It’s the nest that a bird makes.

It’s the clothes that you’re wearing.

It’s the books on your shelf.

It’s your shelf.

Technology is what living things make.

And according to Kevin Kelly?

Technology is as inevitable as evolution itself.

His idea is that technology — in all its forms — is an extension of biological evolution. And that biological evolution is itself an extension of the universe’s coalescence from energy into matter into planets into stars and, ultimately, into the world we live in.

He doesn’t stop there.

He also argues that intelligence — sentience — awareness of oneself and the environment and the ability to make choices — is inevitable, too. An example of this is the independent evolution of the type of “charismatic intelligence” we find in ourselves. We are not the only beings with glimmers of this kind of life — it happened independently in whales and birds, too. (Not all birds, of course — sparrows seem quite dumb. But ravens? Ravens know what’s up. So too with dolphins — didn’t Douglas Adams teach us that? I have no comment on the narwhal.)

His arguments are compelling. And they are immediately relevant to the world of drones.

Drones exist within a robotics and computing ecosystem. They are flying robots. They are run with computer “brains.” Any advances in artificial intelligence will find their way into drones.

What does that mean for us? Will the flying robots like us? What does that even mean?

Though the immediate answer is “nobody knows,” we can’t stop there. That’s a cop-out. That’s refusing to think in order to spare your brain the pain.

We can do better than that, Drone Law Nation.

We can run straight at these problems and grapple with them.

We can wrestle with them in the night like Jacob and the angel of God.

And the main problem, to my mind, is not simply the advance of technology and automation as applied to traditionally human endeavors. It’s in the advance of artificial intelligence to the point where it looks, sounds, and feels just like ours.

And then what?

What happens then?

What do we do? What does law look like?

In fact, law itself is a technology — it’s an operating system for society. How will the technology of our legal system adjust to the rise of machines with human-level intelligence? (whatever human-level intelligence might mean).

Kevin Kelly is ultimately optimistic. He views technology as a liberating force, not in the sense of removing perceived “oppression,” but rather in the sense of creating new options for human talents to emerge.

For example, what is Mozart without the piano? What is Van Gogh without cheap oil paint? What is Michelangelo without the tools to carve marble? What is Daft Punk without a synthesizer?

In Kelly’s view, the result of artificial intelligence — whatever that might look like — is a net win for humanity because previously unseen (and unavailable options) will become available to us. What might those be? It’s impossible to say in advance.

In fact, it’s usually impossible to say in advance what the net effect of new technology will be. One example in the book is the development of the “horseless carriage” — the cars we take for granted. From our perspective, it’s obvious that cars mean streets and traffic lights and traffic deaths and suburban houses and interstate highways and whole industries spinning out of our efforts to make the system work.

But at first? None of that was visible. All the people could see back then was the fact that cars could be faster than horses, and that they would not fill the streets with their crap. The “horse manure crisis” was a real environmental concern — people back then were legitimately worried that New York would be buried in dung if the rate of horse usage kept increasing.

The ecosystem that grew up around cars was only obvious after the technology was everywhere.

This will be the case with robots. This will be the case with drones. This will be the case with robots and drones that run on artificial intelligence.

These are the kinds of questions that Kevin Kelly wrestles with in What Technology Wants. He spent years writing this treasure of a book, and this review cannot do it justice.

This book is a necessary read for anyone that wants to understand where the future is going. And I think that’s you, Drone Law Nation.

Read it through and think about what the future might hold. And let us know what that future looks like in your mind.

Who knows? You might have the perspective that unlocks everything.

Share the wisdom. Share the love.

Let’s go win the future.

And while you do that,

Keep On Flying.