Mainly for computer-savvy readers.

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THE MOST HUMAN HUMAN

WHAT TALKING TO COMPUTERS TEACHES US ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE ALIVE

A heady exploration of the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and human nature.

Each year, the Loebner Prize competition tests the continuing evolution of AI. Based on the Turing Test, named for British computer pioneer Alan Turing, the contest pits AI programs against people in an electronic conversation designed to determine whether computers can “think.” While no machine has ever fooled the judges into thinking it was human, the event recognizes both the “most human” computer and the “most human” human. Intrigued by the latter expression, Christian decided to investigate its meaning. He participated in the 2009 Loebner competition and interviewed philosophers, computer scientists and others to write this debut book about the ways in which computers are reshaping our sense of self. The author begins by asking a few questions: What are humans’ abilities? What are we good at? What makes us special? Since Aristotle, writes the author, the answer has been that only humans can reason. Yet the computer’s earliest achievement fell into the domain of logical analysis. So where does that leave humans? Since the 1997 AI showdown in which supercomputer Deep Blue won a chess match against world champion Garry Kasparov, humans have felt “an uneasy and shifting relationship” between AI and our sense of self. Christian’s occasionally rambling examination of the way machines are forcing us to appreciate what it means to be human leads him to explore everything from poetry, chess and existentialism to the state of “flow,” in which we become completely immersed in unself-conscious activity. Along the way, the author offers an overview of the history of AI, including the development at MIT of the first conversational computer programs in the mid ’60s and the inner workings of chess computers, which store huge amounts of data on possible chess positions. With AI chat bots now finding commercial uses—an airline website invited the author to chat with “Jinn” instead of calling their customer-service line—we more frequently encounter AI in daily life. “Maybe it’s not until we experience machines that we appreciate the human,” writes Christian.

Mainly for computer-savvy readers.

Pub Date: March 8, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-385-53306-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2011

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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