Skip to main content

How Smart Machines Think - Sean Gerrish ****

While it will become apparent I think this book should have been titled 'How Dumb Machines Think', it was a remarkably enjoyable insight into how the well publicised AI successes - self-driving cars, image and face recognition, IBM's Jeopardy! playing Watson, along with  game playing AIs in chess, Go and Atari and StarCraft, perform their dark arts.

There's no actual programming presented here, so no need for non-programmers to panic, though there is some quite detailed discussion of how the software architectures are structured and how the different components - for example neural networks - do their job, but it isn't anything too scary if you take it slowly.

One thing that comes across very strongly, despite the AI types' insistence that their programs are of general use, is how very specifically tailored programs like the AlphaGo software that beat champions at the game Go, and the Watson computer that won at the US TV quiz show Jeopardy! were - incredibly finely designed to meet use and that use only.

The reason I make the remark about dumb machines is that what doesn't come across sufficiently in Sean Gerrish's book is that, because these programs are not in any sense intelligent, when they get things wrong, they often get things dramatically wrong. So some of Watson's answers on Jeopardy! did not make any sense at all. Similarly, image recognition software can be fooled by apparently abstract patterns that happen to have the right components to appear to be a distinguishable object. And when you bear in mind we're suggesting putting this kind of software in charge of cars that 'getting it dramatically wrong' bit is more than a little unnerving.

There was, though, a great section on the development of self-driving cars, from the original feeble attempts, where all the competitors in a race failed before completing 10 percent of the course, through to more recent and more successful versions that can handle basic traffic scenarios - though it would have been nice if Gerrish had gone beyond the old prize challenges to describe what the latest Google and Uber vehicles do. (It may be that their approaches are too proprietary.)

However, what was missing was any serious assessment of the big problems still faced. There have been two excellent books recently on the huge holes in AI that practitioners rarely admit to - The AI Delusion and Common Sense, The Turing Test and the Quest for Real AI - Gerrish would have produced an even better book if he could have addressed the concerns that these books raise.

Even so, in How Smart Machines Think we have a hugely informative and very readable book for anyone with an interest in finding out just what the much-trumpeted AI systems really do, and what lies beneath the hype.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Search for Life on Mars - Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth ***

From the book’s enticing subtitle, ‘The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time’, I was expecting something rather different. I thought the authors would kick off by introducing the suspects (the various forms life might take on Mars, either now or in the past) and the kind of telltale traces they might leave, followed by a chronological account of the detectives (i.e. scientists) searching for those traces, ruling out certain suspects and focusing on others, turning up unexpected new clues, and so on. But the book is nothing like that. Continuing with the fiction analogy, this isn’t a novel so much as a collection of short stories – eleven self-contained chapters, each with its own set of protagonists, suspects and clues.

Some of the chapters work better than others. I found the first three – which despite their early placement cover NASA’s most recent Mars missions – the most irritating. For one thing, they unfold in a way that’s at odds with the cerebral ‘detective story’ na…