Skip to main content

Natural Computing – Dennis Shasha & Cathy Lazere ****

Here we have a touch of brilliance; an exploration of computing on the edge. What the authors cover very engagingly is the different ways computer can develop, whether through the ‘natural’ route suggested by the title – using bacteria to compute with, for instance – or programming robots to be more like insects than a conventional rational individual. We see software being developed in evolutionary fashion and the attempts to harness quantum computers – reflecting on their capabilities and limitations.
It’s all very readable, though because the book is split into 14 chapters, each based on one or more individuals and their work, I found the biographies that started each chapter a little tedious because, frankly I wasn’t very interested in these people. That didn’t stop their work being fascinating, and I know popular science thrives on context, but this was unnecessary information.
The other slight hesitation I have about the book is that the authors are relentlessly enthusiastic about the outcomes – there could be more examination of chances of success. To take an example, the chapter on Jake Loveless and Amrut Baharambe looks at using evolutionary code to model a financial market and make successful trades. It says at the end that their genetic algorithm ‘worked’ – but what does this mean? Did it do better than random selection? Will it generally? All the evidence that markets really aren’t suitable for modelling and nothing can forecast crashes because they aren’t logical or following any kind of rule (other than occasional panic) – but there was no examination of how this problem was dealt with or why, if this algorithm ‘works’ it isn’t generating billionaires all over the place.
There were several other places where the enthusiasm rather plastered over what could be lack of real results, and it would have been nice to have been able to hold this work up against a more objective measure – but even so it is hugely fascinating for anyone with an interest in computing and how it can continue to change our world.
Paperback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…