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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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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