Book Reviews

Book reviews

Disclaimer: These listed books do not constitute endorsement or otherwise by CSIRO, and have been selected as they relate to the foresights developed by the project team, and can thus stimulate discussions between the project team members as part of the Futures project.

  • Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning
  • The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future
  • Technology vs Humanity. The coming clash between man and machine
  • The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters
  • Four Futures: Life After Capitalism

See details below.


Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning – Author Cynthia Grabo

Published 2002 (declassified, but 30 years old) – available for free download.

Review by Fabio Boschetti

Cynthia Grabo worked as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. government from 1942 to 1980, specialising in strategic warning.  Her 30+ year experience were initially collected in a classified document which has recently been de-classified (this book). Before reading this book I assumed that the urgency, immediacy and magnitude of a military vs environmental threat would mean that the former is addressed in a way fundamentally different from how ‘we’ (scientists plus decision makers) deal with the latter. It turns out this is not generally the case.

The book is not on risk assessment and response as much as on warning, that is the process that goes from i) deciding whether a risk warrants being communicated to ii) making sure that the warning is paid attention to and finally iii) is acted upon. Here the similarities between Grabo’s and our experiences are striking. Below I summarise the main lessons I learnt, noting that if the similarities between military and environmental warning are of interest to you, nothing will match reading the author’s own words.

  1. There is an important important difference between an indicator and an indication. An indicator has the same meaning as in any scientific field. An indication is the suggestion that something may be happening, which may result from the interpretation of one or more indicators, experience or subjective intuition.
  2. “Facts don’t ‘speak for themselves’” and “Warning does not exist until it has been conveyed to the policymaker, and he must know that he has been warned”. These two statements mark the starting and end points of a process, which goes from facts, to indicators, to indications, to judgments, to delivery of warning, to decision making. Stopping anyway along the process is a potential failure (see next point).
  3. If something goes wrong, blame will almost always fall on the analysts, either because the warning was not delivered or, if it was delivered, because it was not delivered loud enough to force paying attention. On the other hand, if all goes fine, rarely will the analysts be acknowledged, simply because nothing will happen.
  4. Because high level managers are very busy, they are unlikely to read reports unless they believe they are top priority. On the other hand, if they receive too many warnings which do not materialise, they will move to a ‘boy cry wolf’ mode and will stop paying attention. So the analysts have to be very careful in making the best use of a few warning ‘opportunities’ available and not squander them.
  5. Grabo gives a lot of importance to experience, wisdom and intuition which she believes are to be found mostly in a minority of a working team. This minority needs to be given a voice, paid attention to and cultivated. There is no reference in the book to Dorner, Kahneman and Tetlock (I guess it was written before and during their main research), but the message is broadly the same. In her own words:

“Thus we continue to see the same types of problems:

  • Inadequate perception of emerging threats, particularly those of low probability but potential great danger;
  • A consequent inadequate collection against such threats;
  • Breakdown of communication between collectors, analysts and agencies;
  • Failure to heed the views of the minority;
  • Vulnerability to deception”

6. The last point (about deception) may very well be the one significant difference between warning as described by Grabo and what we deal with in environmental science. Military warning lays within a game-theoretical scenario in which i) it is essential to gauge the adversary’s intentions in addition to capability and ii) the adversary may purposely deceive. While these may apply to stakeholder interaction, they usually don’t apply to Nature itself.

7. We need to be realistic and humble about how much/little we know. Uncertainty and surprises are everywhere. Nevertheless, ‘it is possible to be … surprised, and at the same time be … prepared’ and ‘chance favors the prepared mind’ .


The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future – Author Vivek Wadhwa

Published 2017.

A computer beats the reigning human champion of Go, a game harder than chess. Another is composing classical music. Labs are creating life-forms from synthetic DNA. A doctor designs an artificial trachea, uses a 3D printer to produce it, and implants it and saves a child’s life.

Astonishing technological advances like these are arriving in increasing numbers. Scholar and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa uses this book to alert us to dozens of them and raise important questions about what they may mean for us.

Breakthroughs such as personalized genomics, self-driving vehicles, drones, and artificial intelligence could make our lives healthier, safer, and easier. But the same technologies raise the specter of a frightening, alienating future: eugenics, a jobless economy, complete loss of privacy, and ever-worsening economic inequality. As Wadhwa puts it, our choices will determine if our future is Star Trek or Mad Max.

Wadhwa offers us three questions to ask about every emerging technology: Does it have the potential to benefit everyone equally? What are its risks and rewards? And does it promote autonomy or dependence? Looking at a broad array of advances in this light, he emphasizes that the future is up to us to create—that even if our hands are not on the wheel, we will decide the driverless car’s destination.


Technology vs Humanity. The coming clash between man and machine – Author Gerd Leonhard

Published 2016.

Futurist Gerd Leonhard breaks new ground again by bringing together mankind’s urge to upgrade and automate everything—down to human biology itself—with our timeless quest for freedom and happiness.

Before it’s too late, we must stop and ask the big questions: How do we embrace technology without becoming it? When it happens—gradually, then suddenly—the machine era will create the greatest watershed in human life on Earth. Technology vs. Humanity is one of the last moral maps we’ll get as humanity enters the Jurassic Park of Big Tech.

Artificial intelligence. Cognitive computing. The Singularity. Digital obesity. Printed food. The Internet of Things. The death of privacy. The end of work-as-we-know-it, and radical longevity: The imminent clash between technology and humanity is already rushing towards us. What moral values are you prepared to stand up for—before being human alters its meaning forever?


The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it MattersAuthor Tom Nichols

Published April 2017

  • Powerful and scathing indictment of the many forces trying to undermine the authority of experts
  • Ties the rise of anti-expertise sentiment and anti-intellectualism not only to the pervasiveness of the internet, but to other technologies such as the explosion of media options
  • Concedes that experts do make mistakes, but argues that the key point is the ability of other well-informed experts to challenge these mistakes and lead to solutions.

Review published on the Conversation – July 2017 – by Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University


Four Futures: Life After CapitalismAuthor Peter Frase

Published Oct 2016.

Review by John Parslow – December 2016

This relatively short book offers a look at four possible social and economic futures. Frase takes a fairly traditional 2×2 approach to framing possible futures. He assumes that two current trends: automation and AI on the one hand, and climate change and resource limitation on the other, will dominate 21st century futures. He then argues that, depending on how the balance between cheap automated production and limits plays out, we could end up experiencing unprecedented material abundance or scarcity. And depending on economic and political responses to loss of jobs through automation, we could end up with increasing inequality, or increasing equality. So his two axes are abundance vs scarcity, and equality vs hierarchy. He labels his four futures communism, rentism, socialism and exterminism.

In his Introduction, Frase emphasizes that his futures aren’t intended as predictions or necessarily realistic scenarios, more as food for thought. He praises science fiction over futurism for its insights about possible futures, and argues that “soft” science fiction often gives us more insight into possible social experiments than “hard” science fiction.  The Introduction did leave me half expecting to see the alternative futures fleshed out in the manner of a science fiction novelette. In fact, the accounts of the futures are quite brief and spare. However, Frase does raise quite a few interesting ideas and questions.

The communistic future (abundance and equality) assumes that the future evolution of automation, 3-D printers, renewable energy and other technologies create cheap or virtually free access to any material and intellectual goods we might want, and that we choose to share these freely. He compares this with the society and economy that supposedly underpins Star Trek. He suggests that we might get there through commitment to a universal basic income, arguing that this will have the interesting economic impact of raising wages for unpleasant jobs (because no-one will be forced to do them cheaply), and lowering wages for prestigious and pleasant jobs (because people will happily do these for not much more than their basic income). This will have encourage investment in automation and elimination of unpleasant jobs.

He addresses the question of whether people can be happy living on a basic income, or whether we need to work to have discipline and meaning in our lives, noting that studies often show the unemployed to be demoralized and unhealthy. He cites an interesting study from Germany, which found that the life-satisfaction and happiness of unemployed people there, who receive decent benefits, improved dramatically when they reached “retirement” age. This suggests it is the social stigma associated with being unemployed, rather than a lack of things to do, which causes unhappiness.

On a less optimistic note, he notes that human competition for status is unlikely to disappear, even in a society where there is no material scarcity. He cites another science fiction novel which suggested that money would be replaced by status credits, a bit like Facebook “likes”, and this could have some undesirable consequences. (I also suspect that, even with super replicators, there will be some material possessions that are still intrinsically scarce, such as desirable real estate, and the subject of ongoing competition and status.)

The rentier future assumes that the same technological developments occur, and offer the same possibility of abundance for all, but that capitalism persists, based on intellectual rather than physical capital. So ordinary citizens might be able to buy or rent their own replicators, but the IP involved in building them, and involved in producing anything from them, will be owned by a few large corporations, and any use of that will incur large licence fees. At the same time, given conventional jobs will have largely disappeared, ordinary citizens will struggle to obtain the income needed to pay the licence fees. So there will be a small very rich elite, a kind of super Silicon Valley, who enjoy the “rent” accruing from a near monopoly on critical IP and patents, and a mass of relatively impoverished citizens. Frase notes that, in both Europe and the US, IP-intensive industries already account for around 40% of GDP.

This society will need large numbers of lawyers, police, security guards and prisons to protect the elite and their property. This is the “Guard Labor” described by Samuel Bowles. The society will also need a much smaller number of creative people, to invent new IP. Overall, this economy still seems likely to suffer a severe shortage of employment. Frase argues it would be in the collective interests for the elite to offer some kind of income redistribution to the masses, to shore up demand. But this may not eventuate, because of problems of free riding or defection among the elite. He seems to doubt that this kind of society is sustainable long-term.

Given sufficient competition among the developers and distributors of IP, one might expect the costs paid by consumers to access these technologies to be driven down anyway. One need only look at the way in which competition continues to drive down the costs and increase the capabilities of current day technologies such as mobile phones, computers and televisions. In order to maintain high prices, the elite would need to form powerful oligopolies or monopolies to restrict competition. Frase points out that IP protection is inherently anti-competitive, as it attempts to lock others out from pursuing a similar approach to providing goods and services.

The “socialism” future has both scarcity and equality. Here, societies are confronted with the environmental consequences of climate change plus resource depletion, and are struggling to deal with this within a socialist state. (I was puzzled initially by Frase’s use of communism and socialism, but as he points out, Marx reserved “communism” for the utopian state of shared abundance and diminished state power that would eventually come. The socialist state (what we called Communism) was a painful intermediary needed to accomplish the transition from Capitalism to Communism.) Frase points to various dystopian novels describing societies clawing their way back from environmental collapse.

In this future, Frase assumes that we don’t invest sufficiently to make the transformation away from fossil fuels towards sustainable energy sources, or that we reach a point where we can only do so through a massive state-aligned program. This is reminiscent of books by environmentalists such as Gliding, who argued almost a decade ago that we will only respond effectively to climate change when it becomes a catastrophe, via a WW2 type government response. But Frase argues against the tendency of the Left to invoke climate catastrophism. He also argues strongly against environmental conservation in its deep green sense of putting nature ahead of human welfare, or somehow preserving nature intact. He suggests it is too late for that, and we have to engineer an outcome that preserves humanity and some form of nature in the best shape we can manage.

Frase notes that many novels of socialist futures argue that planning can’t be left to the market, and that governments will need to play a much bigger role in planning and allocating production. Frase is sceptical, and argues that, if we have replicator technology, the problem is not planning production of finished goods, but constraining demand to match supply of limited inputs (energy and key minerals, etc). He argues that markets can play a valuable role in signalling and constraining demand, and matching demand and supply. He also argues that new emerging markets in the sharing economy can be “socialised” by removing the central profit extraction by companies such as Uber, and putting the software in the hands of the providers. (This raises an interesting question though. By all accounts, many of these modern IT-based firms, such as Uber and even Amazon, continue to operate at a loss. Would it make much difference in practice if these were operated as a community-owned enterprise?)

The combination of scarcity and hierarchy gives Frase his darkest future: Exterminism. The premise is simple. The elite control the replicator IP and the robots, and they have no need for masses of industrial workers, or for mass consumer markets. But there are potential shortages of energy, food and material resources, if they continue to try to support 10 billion people in the lifestyle they aspire too. The elite are obviously much better off if the vast majority of these people disappear. If the elite also control security apparatus, including military robots, they have the power to protect themselves against any attempted insurrection.

Frase notes that we already have a global super-elite which is so rich that it effectively feels no material constraint or scarcity, because the cost of almost anything is negligible. We are also investing heavily in military and police robots, and automated surveillance. And the wealthy increasingly choose to live in secure enclaves, protected by private security. The wealthy entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley call for separate states or floating nations where they will not have to put up with the masses. Lebanese developers are building a private city offshore of Lagos, where the elite can escape the mayhem onshore.

Frase recalls an article by the economist Leontief, comparing workers in the future to horses in the US in the 1920s, whose population has dropped from 20 million to 3 million. (The U-tube video with a couple of horses discussing the future of work seems less funny in this context.) One could imagine a bleak future of rising disparity, in which the bulk of society descends into a morass of poverty, crime and disease, and the elite manage to hold themselves apart, resulting in a kind of semi-failed state. In this fashion, one could see a rapid reduction in human population through “neglect”.

Frase asks whether western democracies could descend into the kind of barbarity or inhumanity in which the elite would take active steps to kill off the unwanted. He argues that elites prove capable of indiscriminate killing whenever the “enemy” can be identified as an existential threat. Frase uses the example of Israel and Gaza, but I’d argue Syria is a much more cogent example. He also notes the continued growth of the prison industry in the US, the sanctioned drone attacks on “terrorists”, the militarization of US police, and increasing conflict between police and civilian populations. He suggests these can all be seen as steps down a road towards a “final” solution.

Although he doesn’t mention it, it seems to me that the history of the world through the 20th century is also revealing. For much of the 20th century, the wealthy western world didn’t need the labour of those in the developing world. We needed some of their resources, and were happy to get them as cheaply as possible, often by bribing government officials. Otherwise, we were “happy” to let them live in poverty, with high levels of suffering and mortality. If asked, we were inclined to describe their predicament as self-inflicted, due to various defects of character or governance. And in various “small” wars, high levels of casualties in these nations were often treated as unfortunate “collateral”. So one could argue that all that is needed to see the same treatment along different social boundaries is the cultivation of sufficient social “distance”.  And in fact the treatment of refugees and illegal immigrants in Australia, Europe and the US can be seen as blurring the external and internal social boundaries.

In his conclusion, Frase reminds us again that his futures aren’t intended as predictions, but they can serve as warnings or guideposts. We need to choose the kind of future we want, and work actively towards it. That means asking ourselves not just where we want to end up, but what kind of path might lead from here to there. And the paths to desirable end-states need not look attractive. He notes for example that one could imagine ending up in a kind of abundant, egalitarian “Communism” with far fewer people via a path of “Exterminism”.

Other reviews of this book: