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

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…