A Thousand Brains (*****)
I have been involved with AI/Machine Learning since late 1970s. Even though my professional involvement stopped a while ago, I never stopped reading about AI, Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, Consciousness, and many other related fields. Over the years as my exposure to this area has increased, so did my list of open questions for which I could not get a satisfactory answer. Looking back, all these annoying gaps and open questions ultimately boil down to one fact – we still don’t have a broad theory of how our brains work. There is a mountain of experimental data, and there are many successful theories of how each small piece work, but there is nothing yet that gives us a broad framework to fit all these pieces together.
The situation is similar to where biology was before the introduction of Darwin’s theory of evolution. We knew a lot about specific animals, their properties and their behavior, how different organs work etc. Yet, we did not understand the whole system of life, where each of these isolated facts can be tied together.
In this ambitious book that’s exactly what the author is trying to do. He created a basic framework that may explain the underlying structure of any brain, especially mammalian and more specifically human brain. It is too early to say if this is the theory we have been waiting for. However, judging by how many of my accumulated list of questions it could potentially answer gives me tremendous hope that this could the basic seed. Since there is so much experimental data about the brain already available, it could be easier to confirm or reject this theory without too many new experiments.
This theory could not only help us better understand the architecture of the brain but could also allow us to build better AI. There are many areas of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) where we have no solution path. This theory shines a tentative light towards such solutions.
Irrespective of whether the theory proves to be correct or not, it is a remarkably thought-provoking book, written in a lucid style that almost anyone should be able to understand. If you are interested in our brain, and I cannot imagine why anyone would not be, then this is a must read.
Klara and the Sun (***)
We exist in a time where the probability is rather high that some of the people living today will witness the transition where machines will be just as intelligent as we are , and perhaps a lot more. Where scientists still have some disagreement is can these machines also be self aware, be conscious, have genuine feelings and emotions, or can they have a sense of self. In this environment, it is rather difficult for any writer to ignore these profound questions, and recently we have seen many prominent writers, who do not specialize in science fiction, have picked up this topic for their fictional work. Ishiguro is another example of it.
However, unlike others, he did not try to explore whether machines can have feelings and a sense of self, but rather assumed they could. I personally think that is a more rational position to take because whatever is happening in our brain and body, it is still governed by the same laws of physics, and therefore there is no reason to believe that it cannot be created in a less organic substrate., unless of course we believe in some sort of mystical, spiritual realm which is beyond physical sciences.
Ishiguro's exploration is more about how we humans will react to such humanoid robots, especially when it comes to the most powerful of human emotion -- love. In that respect, even though it was an enjoyable read, it failed to reach the richness of some of his earlier novels. There is no deep insight here that could surprise the reader. I am still very glad that a writer of his stature would pick up this theme -- a topic every thinking person should start thinking about.
The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (****)
The book is more than a quarter century old, which is a very long time in fast evolving fields like neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology or linguistics. That's why I was a little hesitant to read it now, but the historical importance of this book, and my respect for Steven Pinker's thinking helped me overcome this hesitation. I am glad that I did.
First of all, a good portion of the book deals with the structure of language, which is almost timeless. Pinker has an uncanny ability to pick great examples to make a point. Anyone who is fascinated by language should enjoy these portions, even if they don't necessarily agree with all his assertions. His main thesis is hinged on Noam Chomsky's theory of us having an innate language skill. As a consequence of that, the author does not subscribe to the idea of cultural relativism, which is popular among many liberal scholars since it helps them dispel the notions of aristocratic or racial superiority. The author argues that one does not need to believe in a "blank slate" theory in order to dispel such baseless ideas.
I mostly agree with Pinker that our brain and our mind has to have a strong genetic component that is shaped by evolution. If fact I find it rather absurd to believe that evolution will not have a strong influence on the development of our mind, and there is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting this. There is no contradiction between accepting that there is a such a thing as human nature, and becoming a puppet in the hand of our genes. Such understanding can only come from incomplete and oversimplified understanding of how biology works.
In conclusion, anyone interested in language and science would benefit from reading this book, even though many things have changed since this book was written.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (****)
What distinguishes this book from many other books on Climate Change and Global Warming is its pragmatism. It makes a strong and convincing case of why we need to act and what our target should be. Once that stage is set, it discusses all the factors that could have the largest impact, and the technical, political, and economic challenges that we will face in each case to turn the ship around.
Unlike many passionate writing on the subject, that spend too much time on making the human race guilty of what we did, blames all of our technologies, and implies that our only way out is by drastically reducing our consumption patterns. There is no doubt that our greedy nature is partly responsible, and needs to change, but we also cannot deny the basic desires of every human being to live in comfort and safety, and enjoy certain luxuries.
It is refreshing to see that Gates accepts these basic desires and recognizes the reality that changing certain fundamental desires is very tough. Therefore, he is looking at how we can still build houses, but reduce the impact of concrete and steel manufacturing, both of which are very carbon heavy. He talks about how we can still cool and warm our houses, but without the use of fossil fuels. He accepts that global transportation is a reality, but tries to determine how to reduce the carbon footprint of travel and transportation. And he accepts that the poor of the world has the same right to enjoy many of the benefits that the rich take for granted, and therefore will move in that direction in the near future.
His target date is to make the world carbon neutral by 2050, and he is backtracking from there to determine when certain policies need to be adopted, which innovative ideas need more funding, and above all how the world governments need to take this issue with utmost seriousness. Many of his solutions depend on technological innovations.
There is a general trend among many people to blame technology for where we are, and therefore by extension, be skeptical of any technological solution. I personally believe that position is completely misguided. Human beings, by our very nature, is technology centric from the earliest days of our existence. When staying in the open felt uncomfortable and unsafe we discovered how to build huts. When huts felt too small and uncomfortable, we discovered other building materials. When we needed to go faster we domesticated horses, but eventually discovered cars, trains, and airplanes. When raw food didn't provide enough nutrition, we discovered how to cook with fire. Every technology we have today are extensions of the same dissatisfaction with what we have, and to take it further. Moreover, we have proved again and again that we are particularly good at problem solving and innovation. So, at the moment of our biggest crisis, why shouldn't we rely on our greatest and proven strength?
Where I agreed most with his thinking is that his approach is not to rely too much on personal sacrifices. While everyone would agree that some personal sacrifice would be necessary and desirable, any policy that entirely depend on most people making those sacrifices for some abstract cause, in my opinion, is bound to fail. It is far safer to assume we are going to remain more or less how we are today -- a little self-centric and mostly worrying about the immediate future. This pragmatism is what made the book a lot more convincing for me. However, unfortunately, I am far less confident that we will do many of the things that he is expecting us to do. Our recent history does not provide too many reasons to be that optimistic. I hope I am utterly wrong.
Shuggie Bain (****)
It is a book set in an environment that is dark, hopeless, and cruel. There is no shortage of novels that depict such a world, but what makes this book distinctive and memorable is the balance it strikes between coldness and compassion, detachment and empathy. It makes us understand the conditions under which the characters behave the way they do, and make terrible choices, but achieves this without any trace of sentimentality. We, as readers, understand the alcoholic mother without liking her or hating her. But above all, the books shinning jewel is the tenderness of the son trying to bring a little comfort to his mother through love, protection, and ultimate acceptance. The relationship between Shuggie Bain and his mother will be remembered as one of the most memorable and complex fictional relationships.
Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility (**)
Carse, James P.
The book starts with a promising tone. It tries to create a frame through which we can see life as two types of game – Finite and Infinite. In the Finite games we play them throughout our lives, most often playing many different games at once, and the object is to end the game and be the winner, and then showcase the title won for all to see and admire. In contrast, Infinite games are played so that they do not end. There are no winners, losers or titles. It is played for the sheer joy of playing. Even though it is a naive and oversimplified world view, it has a novelty of presentation that seemed rather attractive.
However, beyond the first few chapters, once the author is done presenting this basic idea, he starts to illustrate with various games we play to build our profession life, our sexual life, our politics and ideology, and our moral philosophy. This is where the book starts to fail. Believing it is building up a grand structure, the author relies on unsubstantiated concepts which are standing on weak legs of semantic manipulation. There are tiring repetitions of statements like “a culture does not have a tradition; it is a tradition”, or “Such museums are not designed to protect art from people, but to protect the people from art”. They sound clever and wise on the surface, but as you read them back, it becomes clear that they are just assertions dressed with sematic juggling.
This type of baseless assertion becomes more apparent as we move deeper in the book. His confident assertion, without any attempt to prove it, that we can never create nature (“a plant cannot be designed or constructed”) and machines can never be creative (“A machine has not the merest trace of its own spontaneity or vitality”) smells of vitalist principles, where living things are imbibed with some external magic that is entirely beyond rational understanding. While it is fine for someone to believe that, but we cannot just make such assertions and walk away. Similarly, his claim that myths, all myths, are necessarily without an identifiable source. They just exist, and that’s what makes them powerful. This is a strange assertion, since it implies that our cultures are incapable to generating new myths, and the only myths are the ancient ones, passed down from times when history was vague and untraceable.
In conclusion, I am glad that I read it, and there are certainly many interesting and thought-provoking passages, but it didn’t have the power to offer a new frame to understand the lives we live. It is at best a highly synthetic and limited model that reflects some of what we do, but it is too ambitious to believe that it is an effective system to guide our lives.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (****)
What a wonderful read. Very few memoirs have this unputdownable quality. The strength comes from the honesty with which it is narrated. The author faced a lot of challenges to fit into this small town that has seen very few "foreigners" and are preconditioned by cultural and political biases. However, he managed to maintain a most balanced perspective, where he is neither in complete love with his new surroundings, but also did not allow his immediate reactions to sully his deep respect for these human beings. It is a story of how one can develop an understanding and respect for another culture, without being blindly enamored by it. It is a story about finding that common ground, that always exists. But above all, it is a story told with utmost honesty.
It is book that is very hard to put in a category. It could be a novel as there are thin threads that connect the various pieces and characters. It could be a collection of stories, since each of its 400+ segments can stand on their own. However, some of these pieces are just a sentence long – just fragments of a fleeting thought. This ambiguity is probably one of the draw of this book. It never lets the reader settle down in a comfortable place, and that fits in very nicely with one of the underlying theme of the book – travel. Most of the characters are in the process of moving through space and time, and this allows us to relate to our own experiences of travel, which is always a state of mind that is partly surreal.
One cannot think of travel through time without thinking of the inevitability of our finite existence and the ultimate fragility of our physical body. The book repeatedly goes back to the theme of preserving our body after we die. While I failed to directly connect the idea or travel with the author’s obsession and curiosity about preservation of the body, it does create a sense of angst about the impermanence of our existence and our innate desire to reach immortality.
Above all, the best parts of the book are the authors meditations, and her ability to capture the details of everyday life.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (**)
If I could rate it just for the illustration, I would have rated it at the highest level. But the words ruined that experience for me. When I first leafed through the book, I was excited in anticipation of discovering another Little Prince. But alas, it lacks the depth, the artistic ambiguity, the story-telling power, or the emotional punch of that book. The thoughts are predictable and cliche, and they don't connect with the characters or their action. It felt like reading a stack of motivational posters in a health club wall. However, the illustrations are fabulous, and I don't regret buying it just for that reason.
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (****)
If I have to pick one skill for which I may feel envious towards someone, it would undoubtably be writing. There are only a few ways we can express our thoughts and emotions, and none of them are as widely expressive as our spoken words. We can express our deepest emotions and also argue our most complex thoughts. On the emotional end of the spectrum there are other forms of communication that can be equally or more effective, like visual arts or painting. But on the other end of the spectrum, where we need to argue something rationally, spoken words stand supreme. It is spoken words, and by extension the written form, is what made it possible for our culture to evolve. What is learnt and felt by one individual could now be transmitted through space and time.
However, most of us write poorly. We cannot express our thoughts as well as a few others who have mastered the art of writing well. While becoming a great writer may not be a teachable skill, becoming a good writer is something that we can all cultivate. Even if we don't write formally, we all need to communicate well. This book could be a great ally in that journey.
Unlike many other "style" books, this one does not prescribe a set of rules. In fact it argues effectively why language should remain free to evolve. But it also shows why certain basic principles of language can make our writing less ambiguous, more precise, and therefore more effective in communicating our ideas. He forms his arguments on the basis of how our mind parses a block of text, and what type of writing can avoid confusing our readers. He also argues that clarity of thought can also lead to better aesthetic appreciation of the text.
This book is primarily intended for people who write to communicate ideas and information, and less so for literary writers. But I cannot imagine why a novelist would not also care about clarity and brevity. Of course literary writing has to be much more than just clear communication, and the magic of certain word sequences is something currently beyond analysis or teachability, but this magic can only happen when the language is crisp and precise.
Even if you don't feel motivated to read a style book, just randomly browsing through it and picking up from the rich collection of example text might prove entertaining and illuminating.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (***)
I am left in a confused moral state by this novel. I loved how the story is told, and felt an intimacy with the place where everything happens. That in itself would have made it into a memorable book in my universe. However, it raised certain moral issues that are very complex and disturbing.
Like many others, I have to admit that I have held a contradictory morality. On one hand I cannot imagine hurting any animal. Therefore, hunting for pleasure is an unthinkable act for me. Yet, until very recently, I ate meat and really enjoyed it. How do so many of us pull off this incredible hypocrisy? It took me many decades to confront this duality, and about a year ago I finally stopped eating all mammals and cephalopods. May be it is not enough, but it is a step.
However, can I empathize with someone whose love for animals can drive them to kill a human being? Definitely not, and that is the moral dichotomy I confronted while reading this novel. I do not believe we have to agree with protagonist of any novel in order to like it, but one must empathize with them, and that was where I felt trapped.
The long passages on Astrology was also a bit hard to swallow.
T-Minus AI: Humanity’s Countdown to Artificial Intelligence and the New Pursuit of Global Power (***)
It is a well written book, but a few things diminished its value in my eyes.
A couple of things that I liked are:
* It is one of the few non-sensational book on this topic. It talks mostly about the narrow AI, which is already here, rather than speculating on some future form of General AI and the existential threats posed by them.
* Some of the basic computer science concepts, like binary numbers, are explained beautifully
What I didn't like are:
* It dismisses General AI as an extremely remote possibility. Many AI researchers do not think so.
* He seems to have rather restricted exposure to the current research on consciousness and related computer science topics. Therefore, his discussion on this topic is very weak.
* While putting a lot of blame about cyber warfare on other countries such as China and Russia, the author never even mentions that USA could also be doing the same. It would be unthinkable that any nation would not invest in this area, and there are some known cases where US has been implicated.
* Talking about international politics, it again keeps US out of any possibility of wrong doing, when the fact is during the entire second half of 20th century US often sided with the wrong side, propping up dictatorial regimes all over the world in the name of fighting communism and other ills.
The obvious national bias in this book makes it somewhat weak and less convincing.
A Tale of Two Cities (***)
I read an abbreviated Bengali translation of this novel in my school days, and was moved by it. I probably should have left it there. I was far less impressed by it now, and it is probably the weakest Dickens novel I have read so far. Instead of focussing on the characters, it relies almost entirely on events and situations, which robs it off the depth that I was expecting. The atmosphere of Paris during the French Revolution is captured with sensitivity. The most rewarding aspect of the novel is how it captures the inherent contradictions of a revolution, where opposite emotions play through the society, bringing out deep contradictions in every individual.