Despite flaws, this should appeal as an earnest attempt to parse the future impact of these radical advances.

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MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE

THE QUEST FOR COMMON GROUND BETWEEN HUMANS AND ROBOTS

An examination of philosophies undergirding the impending future of driverless cars and mobile robots.

Longtime New York Times technology and business reporter Markoff (What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, 2005, etc.) focuses on technology’s unexpected social impacts, discussing long-running divisions between artificial intelligence and "Intelligence Augmentation," as represented by innovations like Apple’s Siri. Even now, “the separate disciplines of artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction rarely speak to one another.” Beginning in the 1950s, this competitiveness incubated at MIT and Stanford. Early on, theoretical proponents of AI were marginalized, both by the perception of computers as massive business-oriented mainframes and by the practical successes of NASA, which "established a view of human-machine interaction that elevates human decision-making beyond the fallible machines of our mythology.” Yet Markoff argues that several AI “bubbles” kept the obscure specialty alive, through the personal computer explosion of the 1980s and the dot-com developments of the ’90s, so that it was primed for a comeback in the smartphone era, as evidenced by the ubiquity of Siri and Google, as well as sudden advancements in robotics. The author’s overall argument is clear: that a synthesis is underway between future AI developments and the ubiquity of such technologies now. The author asserts that “programs like Siri…are beginning to make human-machine interactions in natural language seem routine.” Markoff acknowledges but doesn’t fully explore the likelihood of profound job losses, noting that as companies like Amazon encounter labor issues, “lights-out [robotic] warehouses are clearly on the horizon.” The author illustrates his broader argument with real-world examples, ranging from Microsoft’s failed interface device “Clippy” to Google’s interest in both autonomous vehicles and robotics. Markoff offers a well-researched and controlled narrative, but his approach is jargon-heavy and too biographically focused on individual innovators in AI and computing, an approach used to better effect in What the Dormouse Said.

Despite flaws, this should appeal as an earnest attempt to parse the future impact of these radical advances.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-06-226668-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

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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