Not everyone approves. Dormehl lets critics have their say but makes a convincing, often disturbing, but always-entertaining...

THINKING MACHINES

THE QUEST FOR ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE—AND WHERE IT'S TAKING US NEXT

A history of artificial intelligence and look at the “dazzling (near) future, the changes that lurk just around the corner, and how they will transform our lives forever.”

During the 1960s, AI seemed to be coming “out of cinemas and paperback novels and into reality,” and then the tide receded. Now it’s everywhere, in our iPhones, TVs, cars, and even refrigerators. It’s a marvelous story, and technology journalist Dormehl (The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems…and Create More, 2015, etc.) does it justice. After World War II, when computers began calculating thousands and then millions of times faster than a human, enthusiasts predicted talking robots in a few decades. The author dubs this the era of “Good Old-fashioned AI.” Sadly, brute-force calculating enabled a computer to play chess brilliantly, but it couldn’t recognize a face, something every 2-month-old baby does. As Steven Pinker said, “the main lesson of the first thirty-five years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard.” By the 1980s, funding and media interest had shrunk, but younger scientists turned their attention from programming knowledge one piece at a time to systems that imitate the brain. These “neural networks” employ probability, feedback, potentiation, and inhibition to make sense of data. It works. Computers can’t yet think, but they can learn. Google, founded in 1998, was one consequence. The powerful computer named Watson, which easily defeated the best Jeopardy contestants in 2011, succeeded by using analogy and trial and error, not massive stores of facts. This was “deep learning.” Computers now recognize faces and the printed word, translate languages, consult other computers, and gather so much information that they can predict our behavior.

Not everyone approves. Dormehl lets critics have their say but makes a convincing, often disturbing, but always-entertaining case that that we’re in for a wild ride.

Pub Date: March 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-14-313058-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Perigee/Penguin

Review Posted Online: Dec. 14, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2017

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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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LAB GIRL

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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