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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.

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Review by Peter Spitz

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