In 2016, the animator Hayao Miyazaki – director of the films My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away – was invited to visit a video games company in Japan called Dwango. The technologists at the company wanted to build “a machine that can draw pictures like humans do”. Using software called “deep learning”, the team had created a 3D model of a human body that had taught ­itself to move around – albeit in an odd, inhuman manner. The technologists hoped the great director would be impressed by their creation – a character that could animate itself. Miyazaki watched the demonstration in silence, thought for a few moments, and then told them: “I am utterly disgusted. I would never wish to incorporate this technology into my work… I feel strongly that this is an insult to life itself.”

Why do we worry about artificial intelligence? Beyond fears that AI might make us redundant, brainwash us or blow us up – concerns that are not in themselves trivial – there is a more fundamental revulsion. The price of technological progress is what Marx called Entfremdung – our estrangement from other people, our work and our possessions. Humans have ­outsourced their morality to God, their creativity to their employers, their desires to Amazon and their friendships to social media. The last unalienated part of human life is thought itself, and the proposal that machines could do our thinking for us ­is a threat to that which is most essential to our humanity.

[see also: Why we need to get AI right from the start]

Fortunately, as the respected computer scientist Michael Wooldridge illustrates in this accessible and highly readable explanation of the field, most people who make large claims about AI either don’t understand it or are deliberately making things up. For more than 80 years, technologists have told investors and the public that thinking machines are about to change everything. These claims are always situated just far enough in the future that no one can do anything but be impressed by the progress they supposedly represent. In 2017, for example, advisers told the UK government that AI would add £630bn to the UK economy by 2035, almost doubling the country’s economic growth. More than four decades earlier, in 1972, a report by James Lighthill, who preceded Stephen Hawking as the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University,…

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