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Future Politics by Jamie Susskind, review: what to do when the robots come for you

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'Pepper' this month became the first robot to appear before a parliamentary select committee
'Pepper' this month became the first robot to appear before a parliamentary select committee Credit: PA

Technology – or tech as the kids call it – offers an uncertain future. Will it liberate us from the state or just give the state more tools to spy on us? Will we be made unemployed and miserable by automation or freed to live a life of luxury? Will the internet bring us love or leave us even lonelier? And the biggest question surely is will the robots be our slaves or our masters? Be kind to your computer: someday it could be programming you.

Jamie Susskind's book is a sort of speculative sci-fi bound together by political theory, trying to avert disaster by showing us both the good and bad possibilities. One striking message is that the future is now. Tech has already surpassed us and is probably on its way to the "automation of automation", or robots breeding like rabbits.

Computers are beating geniuses at chess; they lip-read better than us; they direct movies; they drive cars. We are already hooked: 90 per cent of us, apparently, keep an iPhone within three feet of our person all day. And while computers once relied on us telling them what to do, they can increasingly think for themselves, although paradoxically only because we've instructed them to.

What will they be like when they finally achieve consciousness? One's thoughts go straight to that wonderful poem by Richard Brautigan, of mankind liberated from industry and "watched over by machines of loving grace". But just as man was created in God's image (and what a monster he can be), so the robots are likely to turn out to be just as bad as we are.

As Susskind reminds us, in 2016 Microsoft launched an AI chatbot called Tay on Twitter, which was supposed to mimic the speech of a 19-year-old girl and learn from interactions with other Twitter users. It took only 16 hours for Tay to become a sexually aggressive neo-Nazi and she had be pulled from the platform. One of her tweets read: "F--- my robot p---- daddy I'm such a naughty robot."

A man speaks with the Japanese android robot 'totto', which replicates Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, one of the country's top TV stars Credit: AFP/Getty

The story is unnerving, amusing and reassuring because it's a reminder that whatever the future holds, it will be the product of human society and the decisions that we choose to make. This is Susskind's point: acknowledging that we are on the verge of a tectonic shift, and we'd be wise to talk about the consequences and draft some intelligent policies.

Take automation. If we stumble into a world in which half the population is thrown on to the dole queue - and, perversely, the economy continues to grow because technological efficiency raises profit - we'll either end up having to create work or there'll be a revolution. Instead, suggests Susskind, why not re-explore the critique of labour found in Karl Marx, which asserts that wealth and status should not be determined by working every hour God sends for some fat cat in a top hat? The ambition of Marxism was in part the abolition of exhausting work and the withering of the state, and both are possible in the "cybernetic ecosystem" dreamt of by Brautigan.

This is an example of how Susskind applies political theory to tech and it's often very successful. At times, it's grating. Susskind's prose reads like an elongated Ted talk: the blindingly obvious is laid out as if it's newfound wisdom and he peppers the text with quotations from great men and women that smack of motivational speaking. Do we need a reproduction of the text of Martin Luther King Jnr's "I Have a Dream"? No. There's idealism in these pages, and a touch of ego.

Still, he has tremendous talent and the book is very readable – and its ability to pull together so much gives it the quality of a textbook, to which we may return in the future to see if he got it all right. Susskind belongs to that group of new philosophical writers who are energised by the potential of globalisation and the digital economy and thus provide a refreshing antidote to the "Death of the West" literature clogging up the shelves. But what I would love to read is a book that picks up the point about human autonomy and runs with it to its logical end, which is to do what the Luddites tried and smash up the machines. Why is this so rarely given to us as an option? I vote to turn the clock back – 30 years at least.

Future Politics is published by Oxford University Press 0844 871 1514 or visit the online Telegraph Bookshop