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The Cambridge Quintet: A Work Of Scientific Speculation (Helix Books) [Paperback]

John L. Casti

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Book Description

23 April 1999 Helix Books
In this narrative tour de force, gifted scientist and author John L. Casti contemplates an imaginary evening of intellectual inquiry--a sort of "My Dinner with" not Andre, but five of the most brilliant thinkers of the twentieth century.Imagine, if you will, one stormy summer evening in 1949, as novelist and scientist C. P. Snow, Britain's distinguished wartime science advisor and author of The Two Cultures, invites four singular guests to a sumptuous seven-course dinner at his alma mater, Christ's College, Cambridge, to discuss one of the emerging scientific issues of the day: Can we build a machine that could duplicate human cognitive processes? The distinguished guest list for Snow's dinner consists of physicist Erwin Schrodinger, inventor of wave mechanics; Ludwig Wittgenstein, the famous twentieth-century philosopher of language, who posited two completely contradictory theories of human thought in his lifetime; population geneticist/science popularizer J.B.S. Haldane; and Alan Turing, the mathematician/codebreaker who formulated the computing scheme that foreshadowed the logical structure of all modern computers. Capturing not only their unique personalities but also their particular stands on this fascinating issue, Casti dramatically shows what each of these great men might have argued about artificial intelligence, had they actually gathered for dinner that midsummer evening.With Snow acting as referee, a lively intellectual debate unfolds. Philosopher Wittgenstein argues that in order to become conscious, a machine would have to have life experiences similar to those of human beings--such as pain, joy, grief, or pleasure. Biologist Haldane offers the idea that mind is a separate entity from matter, so that regardless of how sophisticated the machine, only flesh can bond with that mysterious force called intelligence. Both physicist Schrodinger and, of course, computer pioneer Turing maintain that it is not the substance, but rather the organization of that substance, that makes a mind conscious.With great verve and skill, Casti recreates a unique and thrilling moment of time in the grand history of scientific ideas. Even readers who have already formed an opinion on artificial intelligence will be forced to reopen their minds on the subject upon reading this absorbing narrative. After almost four decades, the solutions to the epic scientific and philosophical problems posed over this meal in C. P. Snow's old rooms at Christ's College remains tantalizingly just out of reach, making this adventure into scientific speculation as valid today as it was in 1949.

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About the Author

John L. Casti, a member of the faculty of both the Santa Fe Institute and the Technical Unviersity of Vienna, has written numerous acclaimed popular scinece books, including Would-be Worlds, Five Golden Rules, and The Cambridge Quintet.

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The tall, balding, avuncular man in the slightly rumpled suit and horn-rimmed glasses looked like nothing so much as a droopy-eyed basset hound as he bustled about his old rooms at Christ's College, instructing Simmons, the manservant, as to exactly where to place the tray of glasses and the bottles of sherry, whisky and water and, in general, reliving a bit of his life here as a student. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Who would you invite to dinner, and why? 14 July 2000
By taking a rest - Published on Amazon.com
Mr. Casti has crafted a wonderful book for readers, and not just those whose interest lay in Scientific "what if" scenarios. His topic is Artificial Intelligence and the probability it will become reality. The specific question is "Can we build a machine that could duplicate human cognitive processes?" The host for the evening is C.P. Snow, and his guests for dinner and debate are physicist Erwin Schrodinger, wave mechanics inventor, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 20th Century philosopher of language, geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, and finally Alan Turing, Mathematician and Father of modern computing.
Keep reading! You do not need to be a student of any of these fields or know who these men are, prior to embarking on this hypothetical snowy evening in Cambridge. And that is the genius of this book, or perhaps one element of it. For not only does Mr. Costi pick a topic that is still as relevant a debate today as it "was" in 1949, he makes the debates readable, and he introduces people who are as important, or even more critical than the names we attach to computers today.
The true genius is of course Mr. Costi, for not only does he posit the question, he selects great minds, and then uses his own to create a dialogue that demonstrates his vast knowledge of these men and their fields. Finally he places his creation in front of readers, not a select group, rather for anyone who is inquisitive. Winston Churchill asked a guest at his home one night to explain the "Theory Of Relativity" in one minute using words with only one syllable. His guest Frederick Lindemann proceeded to do just that. Mr. Costi uses words that violate the singular syllable rule, and if anyone could speed read the book in 60 seconds their effort would be pointless.
History can be boring or Martin Gilbert, Daniel J. Boorstin, Amanda Foreman, or Ron Chernow to name just a few can write it. The same can be said of science or the Law. The subjects can be cloaked in mystery not because they are complex, rather the skill to communicate what they are, is difficult for many, impossible for most, and fortunately for readers there are a few greater minds/communicators who can open these portals of knowledge.
The Hubble Telescope documents phenomena that are visually awe-inspiring. But until a Dr. Hawkings brings some meaning to them, they are just pretty pictures, images that show space in unimaginable dimensions, and objects that defy all commonly held thought.
Great book, great read, highly recommended!
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Very Readable Primer on the Mind/Body Problem 27 Oct 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Turing and Wittgenstein are the protagonists here, the former promoting a strictly algorithmic and formalistic approach to mind and language while the latter is equally vehement in his insistence on a social basis for all thought and conversation. Snow, Haldane, and Schrodinger, brilliant thinkers in their own fields, are not quite up to speed on mind/machine matters at the start of the dinner, but they get in the groove by the time the entree arrives. This is a clever move on Casti's part: readers who themselves have a little catching up to do can link up with Snow, et al, and follow the discussion without undue mental strain. The basic arguments remain unresolved at dinner's end, as indeed they remain so to this day. More disturbing is the realization that, in today's jargon, Turing is advocating only the weak form of artificial intelligence, while Wittengenstein seems to be deriding only the strong form. Casti might have addressed this more fully in his Afterward. And, he might have introduced the notion of probabilistic rules in Chapter 3, rather than let the reader think that the machine can only slavishly follow a deterministic program. But these are quibbles. Casti has done a fine job of making a fascinating field accessible to a wide audience.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good summary of AI main debate : can machines think ? 25 Aug 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
This book will delight those already acquainted with Wittgenstein and Turing's perspectives. Easy to read, written in a very enjoyable style by John Casti (whom "Paradigms lost" constitute the masterpiece in my view), it nonetheless describes in a very sharp way the main arguments on both sides of the debate. Maybe too weak in the conclusion.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly entertaining 24 July 2005
By meadowreader - Published on Amazon.com
I confess a weakness for this kind of format, a fictional situation in which historical figures meet around a table and argue their various points of view face-to face. This short book is an especially nice example of the genre, with the protagonists meeting around the dinner table in Cambridge on a stormy English night in 1949. It recalls a certain variety of detective story, and in a way that's what it is. But the essential mystery, what it means to be a thinking human being, is not finally solved.

Many of the key issues connected with language, thought, and the possibilities for machine intelligence are touched on in these conversations, giving the reader a good sense of the kinds of philosophical and technical questions that remain unresolved even today. The mode of presentation is probably about as entertaining a one as possible for an introduction to this kind of material. At a minimum, I think your reaction to the book will tell you whether you have enough interest in the subject matter to pursue it much further. But even if you don't, you will have encountered a great many stimulating ideas in these pages. And you will know enough not to have to sit there like a stupid lump should the subject of AI (Artificial Intelligence) come up in conversation. The book does not go as far as some reviewers would have liked, but I think it nicely does the introductory overview job it set out to do.

My only quibble is that while Chomsky's later ideas about language are presented (Casti admits the anachronism as a way to get certain ideas into the conversation), behavioral psychology is not given the benefit of a similar updating. Skinner's work on verbal behavior was quite sophisticated, much akin to the view here put forth by Wittgenstein, and far from the old Watsonian stimulus-response version of behaviorism used as a foil in the book. That was a difference, by the way, that Chomsky never managed to comprehend.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, broad introduction to the philosophy of mind 30 July 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Casti starts with the question "can a machine be made to think" and moves quickly into numerous tangential areas in computational theory and the philosophy mind. That said, the book entertains and enlightens, fluidly inserting some of the most famous "thought experiments" and ideas relating to artificial intelligence. Highly recommend for those with no detailed knowledge of the topics. For those who are already familiar with the Turing test, Chinese room argument, and Wittgenstein's thoughts on the "language game" this short book provides an entertaining reminder of how these ideas fit together in the context of AI. Unfortunately the book cannot explore any of the topics in depth, given that Casti holds true to the venue.
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