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

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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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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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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