Skip to main content

Are the Androids Dreaming Yet - James Tagg ***

It would be easy to dismiss this book, with the reference in the title to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the Philip K. Dick book) that Blade Runner was (very loosely) based on, as a vanity project by an entrepreneur who has too much spare time on his hands, but it turns out to be an interesting, if sometimes challenging read.

I think that James Tagg's aim was to compare the human brain with what is now and might ever be within the capabilities of an artificial intelligence, and to explore areas like creativity and free will where we may see a difference. And there are times that he does this very well. If you have the patience, you will find a lot to get you thinking in Tagg's meanderings through different aspects of the nature of thought and creativity, plus lots of insights into the developments of thinking computers (though not enough, I think on how AI has been developing using neural networks etc.). But the problem is that the book has no narrative arc - it is a series of almost independent chapters, which throw information at you, but don't tell a cohesive story. This is where the patience is required, but, as mentioned, you will certainly find plenty to make you pause and think, especially if you have accepted at face value the suggestion from IT experts that a conscious, more-intelligent-than-human supercomputer is inevitable.

Where I wasn't totally convinced was in a couple of chapters where Tagg tries to prove that there are some things humans can do that a Turing universal computer can't, because he reckons there are some things we can do that aren't computable. It's definitely true that there are some things that aren't computable. And I have to take Tagg's word for it that these include, for instance, Andrew Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. But where it gets a bit doubtful is that he says that this also shows, for instance, that a computer could not write some of the music that humans could write, as you can turn Wiles' proof into a musical piece by substituting notes for characters. While this may technically be true a) I don't think any real musician (other than a poser) would want to compose that piece and b) there would still remain an infinite set of musical compositions a computer could produce, of which an infinite subset would be superb music. So does this really mean as Tagg argues that computers can't be creative as we can?

Even so, as we journey from the difference between communication with words and with full-on face-to-face human conversation, through microtubules in the brain and the nature of infinity to how creativity works, there is definitely a lot to make you think. I'm less certain about a topic I know a reasonable amount about, quantum theory, where Tagg makes the statement '[the uncertainty principle] does not prevent the universe knowing the information it needs to allow the particle to go about its business in an entirely deterministic fashion. There is a perfectly reliable an predictable wave function that governs the motion of every particle...' - unfortunately the wave equation is probabilistic, not deterministic, so I can't see how this is true.

One final concern is a certain sloppiness. In a single chapter, Tagg first confuses Babbage’s Difference Engine and Analytical Engine (he talks about the never-built Analytical Engine, but shows a picture of the Science Museum's completed Difference Engine). He describes the Antikythera mechanism, but that label is applied to a picture of a modern reconstruction. And Milton Sirotta, the nephew of mathematician Ed Kasner, who famously came up with the name ‘googol’ is turned into the more exotic Milton Sirocco. Oh, and there is hardly anything on the website the book keep referencing to find out more. (So I couldn't find out if his opening puzzle, supposedly solved there, was answered in a genuinely creative way, or using the uncreative stock answer.)

So it's an interesting mix of a book. It isn't brilliantly written and structured, and it's difficult to draw significant conclusions from it, but it does make you think, and that can't be a bad thing.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…