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 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…