Skip to main content

The Digital Mind - Arlindo Oliveira ***

According to the blurb, this book is a 'delightful romp through computer science, biology, physics and much else...' It certainly is no delightful romp. The Digital Mind is probably best described as an academic's idea of what a popular science book is like. The result is a strange mix of reasonably readable text with unnecessary academic terminology, some incomprehensible 'explanation' and even the incumbrance of inline references.

What Arlindo Oliveira sets out to do is certainly broad in sweep. He gives us background chapters on the development of electronics, computing, AI, cells, the brain and more, then brings them all together in a synthesis that examines the possibilities and implications of artificial minds, whether limited - for example, does Google have a kind of mind? - to being fully conscious. Without doubt there's a lot to interest the reader here, particularly once Oliveira gets to the synthesis part.

Of the introductory bits, not entirely surprising given Oliveira is a computer science professor, the computing parts probably work best. The biological parts seemed rather dull to read, and though there's plenty of material there, it certainly wasn't the best introduction to cells or the workings of the brain. However, the reader who persists will be rewarded with genuinely interesting material on how we should treat an artificial intelligence, what the implications of copying a digital intelligence are and so forth. Interestingly Oliveira did not regard the concept of a conscious AI as 'speculation' - he left that to the Singularity.

Perhaps the most worrying part was some not entirely accurate history of science. We are told 'Later in the nineteenth century, punched cards would be used in the first working mechanical computer, developed by Charles Babbage' - but unfortunately, they weren't, it was never built. We are also told a working version of Babbage's Analytical Engine was made in 1992 and is on display in the Science Museum - but it wasn't. That's a working version of his mechanical calculator, the Difference Engine (No 2) - not a computer. There's also an occasional tendency to hyperbole. 'I belong to the first generation to design, build, program, use and understand computers,' says Oliveira. That would make him of Alan Turing's generation - but the author doesn't look over 100 in his photo.

While the speculative part of the book (by which I mean all the AI stuff, not just the chapter on the Singularity labelled Speculations) is very interesting, it can be quite dismissive of others' views. Oliveira seems to have no time for Good Old Fashioned AI (he should have read Common Sense, The Turing Test and the Search for Real AI) and dismisses Roger Penrose's ideas of a quantum component to consciousness as making him an 'undercover dualist', which they surely don't.

Overall, then, fairly plodding (certainly no romping) in the introductory sections, but worth reading, if you are interested in AI, for the later sections and their stimulating ideas.

Hardback:  

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…