Skip to main content

Artificial Intelligence (Ladybird Experts) - Michael Wooldridge ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Michael Wooldridge takes us on an effective little tour of artificial intelligence. Given the very compact form, he fits a lot in, taking us through some of the historical development including the 'golden age' (when everything seemed possible and very little was done), through the rise and fall of expert system, robotics, and the modern split between machine learning and 'good old-fashioned AI'. He emphasises how much in the past expectations have far outreached reality (then does something rather similar himself at the end).

It's just such a shame the format wastes half the space available with pointless and rather childish illustrations that don't add anything at all to the content. This book is supposed to be aimed at adults, but I read this on a train (the format's ideal for a short journey), and felt embarrassed to be seen looking at what appears to be a children's picture book.

The format isn't helped by the problem of using an academic to put something across to the general reader - there was sometimes a lack of appreciation of the sort of questions that people would want answering. For example, there is a page dedicated to the program SHRDLU. Immediately the reader thinks ‘Why SHRDLU?’ And Wooldridge leaves us hanging with the unhelpful ‘curiously named’. (As I couldn’t be so cruel, it’s the second block of letters on a Linotype printing machine, where the first block, in approximate frequency of use order was ETAOIN.)

Occasionally, the tightness of space of the format led to an oversimplification that was confusing. So, for example, when talking about the travelling salesman problem, we are told: ‘The best we seem able to do with NP-complete problems [never properly defined] is to exhaustively consider all possible solutions.’ But it depends what you mean by best. That's the only way to be sure of finding the optimal solution, but there are methods that will get within a small percentage of optimal in practical times (or satnavs wouldn’t work), which are surely better than a non-feasible approach? Similarly, we are told ‘The type of logic used in mathematics can’t cope with this seemingly trivial scenario [moving away from the idea Tweetie, who is a bird, can fly when you discover it’s a penguin], because it wasn’t designed for retracting conclusions.’ But this is exactly what happens when using Bayesian methods... which bizarrely are covered on the next page.

A final, and important oversimplification is over the negatives of AI. Some parts ignore this. The section on driverless cars is upbeat about all the lives that could potentially be saved. But this ignores the psychological issue that we aren't good at weighing up virtual lives saved against the actual people who will definitely be killed by driverless cars (the first example occurred just before this review was written). Though Wooldridge does mention problems from job losses, loss of privacy and algorithmic bias, he also misses the negatives arising from a point he makes earlier that machine learning can’t explain its decisions. The inability to explain why, say, someone is refused a mortgage runs counter to increasing move towards corporate transparency and could prove a real problem.

Overall, Wooldridge does a surprisingly good job, though, given the limitations of the format.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…