SLAVES OF THE MACHINE by Gregory J.E. Rawlins


The Quickening of Computer Technology
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 An uninspiring review of the history of the computer, and an evaluation of its impact on our society today and in decades to come. In his previous book, Moths to the Flame: The Seductions of Computer Technology (not reviewed), Rawlins wrote effectively for a lay audience, prophesying the future of the computer and preaching cautious guidance of its evolution toward thinking machines. For some reason, he revisits that topic here with little variation in his material or tone. But this time, the material seems dull and overly abstract. In this diminutive volume, Rawlins (Computer Science/Indiana Univ., Bloomington) takes us through the oft-repeated history of the computer, from British mathematicians Charles Babbage and Alan Turing to todays programmers working in esoteric machine languages. He then asks a series of important questions: How do we communicate with computers? What can and can't they do? Can they mimic the thought processes of the human brain? Yet, despite an overly pedantic and hortatory tone, the answers fail to inform. Rawlins's anecdotes and metaphors are repetitive, and his thinking is circuitous, if not tautological: ``Only tomorrow's children can tell us what tomorrow's computers can do.'' Rawlins seems caught between talking down to the lay reader and writing in sophisticated terms about the growing influence of computer technology. At the book's end, he finally comes to its point: Since computers are evolving rapidly (he claims they double in complexity every 18 months) and we are not, computers will ultimately become uncontrollable: ``No self-aware creature will suffer itself to be a slave,'' he warns. But he doesn't posit specific solutions; indeed, it isn't even clear that he thinks this is potentially disastrous. Muddled intentions, combined with the unconvincing specter of a world full of HALs controlling their makers, diminish Rawlins's latest effort to enlighten us about our future.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-262-18183-5
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: MIT
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1997