The question “will AI be beneficent or disastrous?” is approaching the status of a dead horse, but that hasn’t prevented...




Pithy essays on artificial intelligence.

Since the 1990s, cultural impresario Brockman (This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know, 2018, etc.) has regularly asked prominent thinkers to address important issues. Since he is also the founder and publisher of and one of the nation’s leading science literary agents, they are not inclined to refuse, so the result has been a long series of collections of thoughtful discourses on a single theme. At roughly seven to 15 pages apiece, these are not the usual Brockman tidbits but weighty disquisitions, most of which examine an aspect of AI that has received attention from numerous editors, including Brockman himself. Most contributors nod respectfully to Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), whose seminal 1950 book, The Human Use of Human Beings, announced that vastly advanced technology was imminent and essential for human welfare and that its major risk was that powerful men might use it as a tool of oppression. Writing before the digital revolution, he failed to predict that the technology itself (AI), not malevolent humans, might be the primary preoccupation. Max Tegmark, Frank Wilczek, and Stuart Russell worry that a superintelligent machine will share one of the primary goals of humans—self-preservation—disable its “off” switch, and look after its own interests. Optimists like Steven Pinker or David Deutsch emphasize that spectacular advances in computer power are the result of, as Pinker writes, “brute force power of faster chips and Bigger Data….Each system is an idiot savant, with little ability to leap to problems it was not set up to solve and a brittle mastery of those it was.” Other contributors include George Dyson, Alison Gopnik, and Daniel Dennett.

The question “will AI be beneficent or disastrous?” is approaching the status of a dead horse, but that hasn’t prevented observers from whacking away at it. Readers who want to join the fun will not find a better introduction than this book.

Pub Date: Feb. 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-55799-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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