“The Atomic Human: Understanding Ourselves in the Age of AI” is a book to be published with Penguin’s Allen Lane in the UK on 6th June 2024.

For the US and Canada it is published on 4th September 2024 with PublicAffairs. The US title is “The Atomic Human: What Makes us Unique in the Age of AI”


What does Artificial Intelligence mean for our identity? Our fascination with AI stems from the perceived uniqueness of human intelligence. We believe it’s what differentiates us. Fears of AI not only concern how it invades our digital lives, but also the implied threat of an intelligence that displaces us from our position at the centre of the world.

Neil D. Lawrence’s visionary book shows why these fears may be misplaced. Atomism, proposed by Democritus, suggested it was impossible to continue dividing matter down into ever smaller components: eventually we reach a point where a cut cannot be made (the Greek for uncuttable is ‘atom’). In the same way, by slicing away at the facets of human intelligence that can be replaced by machines, AI uncovers what is left: an indivisible core that is the essence of humanity.

Human intelligence has evolved across hundreds of thousands of years. Due to our physical and cognitive constraints over that time, it is social and highly embodied. By contrasting our capabilities with machine intelligence, The Atomic Human reveals the technical origins, capabilities and limitations of AI systems, and how they should be wielded. Not just by the experts, but ordinary people. Understanding this will enable readers to choose the future we want – either one where AI is a tool for us, or where we become a tool of AI – and how to counteract the digital oligarchy to maintain the fabric of an open, fair and democratic society.

Reviews of The Atomic Human

‘The clarity, authority, wit and insight Lawrence brings to bear are like torches shining into the turbulent darkness of a subject we all wonder at, but which we mostly feel unable to even to think or talk about with any confidence. Hugely recommended’ Stephen Fry

‘Neil Lawrence’s The Atomic Human is a brilliant technological and philosophical tour de force by one the world’s foremost authorities on the world of AI and machine learning. Anyone interested in the great promise and potential dangers of AI and machine learning would do well to read this book. The Atomic Human is at once fascinating, entertaining, and a deeply serious study on one of the most consequential emerging technologies humans have ever developed. Lawrence has plenty of computer science laced through the book, but he makes it understandable to the non-specialist by great use of historical examples and explanation by analogy. It is also a book of ethics and philosophy that argues we must always ensure that machines and AI are viewed and used as tools to assist humans and we must never concede control of fundamental decisions of great consequence. A great book by an obviously brilliant author.’ General Mark A. Milley, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff

‘This is a book for anyone and everyone who is interested in what makes humans different from machines by one of the world’s experts in AI research. Understanding the differences more may help us live in harmony alongside very intelligent machines so that we can worry less about existential threats and more about how we work with intelligent machines to make the world a better place’ Dame Wendy Hall, Regius Professor of Computer Science, University of Southampton, co-author of Four Internets

‘According to Professor Neil Lawrence, all of us suffer from locked-in syndrome … I have been gripped by this insight. Lawrence’s book concludes that whatever AI becomes, and whether or not it ultimately poses a threat to our species, it will never replicate or penetrate the essence of what it means to be human … To be a human is, indeed, to be locked in. But it is in our struggle against inarticulacy that we find our deepest voice and highest meaning’ – Matthew SyedThe Sunday Times. Author of Rebel Ideas and Black Box Thinking.

‘This is an utterly absorbing account of humans, computers, and how much they differ. It explains why AI cannot substitute for human intelligence even as machine intelligence poses enormous challenges for how information is used and societies are organised’ – Dame Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy, University of Cambridge, author of Cogs and Monsters

‘The intellectual sweep of Sapiens focused on understanding and contrasting human and machine intelligence and what this means for society. Professor Lawrence invites the general reader to join him in the debate, effortlessly bridging C. P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ with lucid accessible explanations of key concepts from mathematics and computer science and resonant human and cultural stories by way of Democritus, Ernest Hemingway and the information contained in our assumptions about what car his mother drives.’ – Dr Jean Innes, CEO The Alan Turing Institute.

‘An enlightening read on AI. Lawrence reminds us that brilliant story telling is the human way to communicate at scale given our otherwise structurally low bandwidth. My main take away is the importance of the difference between intelligence as a property rather than intelligence as an entity.’ – Lord Petitgas, UK Prime Minister’s Special Adviser on Business and Investment

‘The Atomic Human is a brilliantly panoramic celebration of the vast expanses of human cognition, as well as the ingenious, flawed, and often bizarre attempts to replicate it artificially. Refusing easy answers, Neil Lawrence cuts a huge swath across the history of computation with passion, erudition, skepticism, and hope. Cognition, he shows us repeatedly, is not an abstract formula, but an impossibly eclectic phenomenon that manifests differently in myriad contexts. From amoebae to the brain to information theory, from Isaac Newton to Alan Turing to ChatGPT, Lawrence shows that our approximations of the mind leave out as much as they leave in. Lawrence reminds us of the plumbed and unplumbed depths of what is really at stake and the unexpected consequences that will accompany the increased integration of society and technology, the uncontrolled behemoth he calls System Zero. What he demonstrates is more relevant and more urgent than most supposed metrics of AI capability today.’ from David Auerbach, author of Meganets and Bitwise: A Life in Code.

‘Neil Lawrence is one of the world’s foremost authorities on AI and one of the few who has deployed AI in large-scale industrial systems. He is also a rare technical leader who understands AI as part of a long evolution of human beings interacting with other intelligences in a cognitive landscape.

‘In this thoughtful and engaging book – ranging from James Watt’s steam engines to World War II gunners and the Apollo lunar landings – Lawrence shows us what’s novel and what’s human about AI.

‘A must read for anyone seeking to understand AI’s place in our world and how to harness it for human flourishing. from David A. Mindell Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, MIT

‘As a Cambridge computer science professor and a former Amazon director, Lawrence understands both the theory and practice of AI. His clear-eyed book expertly explains the capabilities — and limitations — of machine intelligence. Ignore the doomsayers: human intelligence still has a lot going for it, he argues.’ from John Thornhill for the Financial Times


Adam Rutherford Review for the Guardian Slightly odd review in which Adam mentions the terminator in the first line of his review where he criticises me for mentioning the terminator in first line of the book! I think we’re both trying to make the same point, that its not a helpful image … but the Atomic Human tries to explain why we use the image, so it doesn’t make the point on first introduction of the film (which it introduces alongside the Sistine chapel image of creation … another classic AI meme written about by Beth Galetti as referenced). Adam also feels I could have done a better job at introducing diverse voices. I’m sure he’s right … but I think there’s a little more diversity to the book than he gives credit! His scan of the index doesn’t really do justice to the ways I try to do that. I think he was provoked by a slightly misleading comment in the press release … which I didn’t write but had signed off on … so more blame on me there and I’m sure I could have done more on this important problem. But am pleased that Adam enjoys some of the other messages the book is trying to get across. It’s certainly written in a spirit which I think matches much of Adam’s admirable body of work.

Brian Clegg in Popular Science Brian likes some aspects (4* from 5), but doesn’t like my narrative style. It’s certainly a style that reflects who I am, and that felt important given the theme of the book. I’m unsure whether to take the James Joyce comparison as a compliment! It is certainly true that I intermingle many stories, but the choice and mix of stories is very purposeful. It is my hope was that there’s method behind the madness. It was my attempt to square the circle of inviting the reader to contribute their thinking to the ideas. I feel there’s too many books that tell the reader how AI works and what’s going to happen. I suppose that is the normal style of a popular science book, but I think that style works best when a technology or idea is well understood (how stars form or what the fundamental laws of physics are). Whereas this technology is different because of how closely integrated it is with our humanity, and how that will pan out is difficult to predict, the main idea is to give the reader the confidence that they should get involved.

Best summer books of 2024: Technology by John Thornhill for the Financial Times

These new books will help you understand AI by Liz Scheier for Publisher’s Weekly

Ray Kurzweil and other experts clash over AI’s future in new books by Alex Wilkins for The New Scientist. “We would do well to listen to experts like Vallor or Lawrence to discover how it really works, rather than succumb to fantastical visions of the future.”

Vulnerable Comme un Humain by Philippe Mecure for La Presse

Locked in by language, we are freed by music, poetry, painting … and love by Matthew Syed for The Sunday Times

Why we should worry about the technological pessimists by John Thornhill for the Financial Times


This site last compiled Sat, 22 Jun 2024 11:01:26 +0000
Github Account Copyright © Neil D. Lawrence 2024. All rights reserved.