Recent Book Reviews
Human Values First: Artificial Intelligence and Our Spiritual Identity
More a philosophical exercise than a story, Human Values First is a clarion call to prioritize people over machines.
Sameer Zahr’s science fiction novel Human Values First uses the death of a company employee to ponder philosophical questions about artificial intelligence, technology, and the future of human workers in an economy that privileges machines.
Howard is a corporate bigwig—a successful and recently retired factory owner who is on the cutting edge of technology. Howard’s factory is compared to Goliath from the Hebrew Bible, and even on the first page, he dreams that one day he might fight the machines in order to save his “clan” (humanity).
Things come to a head when one of Howard’s workers commits suicide. This action haunts Howard so much that he decides to take action. Guessing that the worker killed himself because of the robotic, impersonal atmosphere at the factory, Howard uses his resources to gather together philosophers, business experts, and others to talk about what AI and computers have done to human workers.
Initially, the story is told through Howard’s dreams and his interactions with his wife, GI, and his therapist, Dr. Sylvia. Through these discussions, Howard reveals his long-festering guilt over the inhuman nature of his factory. When the novel reaches “Session One,” it becomes a platonic dialogue about the dangers of artificial intelligence. The story’s message—that humanity should never eradicate itself, its morals, and its spirituality in return for more gadgets and higher profits—takes over.
More philosophy than fiction, the novel is light on its story aspects. Howard and his workers are merely the catalyst for a larger discussion of modern working conditions. Characterization takes a back seat to big questions.
The book tackles perhaps the paramount issue of the age, and its writing does not engage in sophistry or unnecessary verbiage. Howard is a humane but circumscribed protagonist. The men he gathers around him in order to describe AI are stand-ins who say often profound things, and their discussions will challenge assumptions about tech, modern civilization, and the dangerous allure of unthinking progress.
A challenge to the way we live our lives and the deepening chasm between meaningful, fulfilling work and the type of daily drudgery that most people engage in, Human Values First is a clarion call to remember that we are humans—fallible, frail humans—who cannot and should not be replaced by machines.
BENJAMIN WELTON (October 30, 2018)