The Pattern On The Stone: The Simple Ideas That Make Computers Work (Science Masters) Paperback – 17 Sep 1999
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Will computers become thinking machines? A scientist at the cutting-edge of current research gives his provocative analysis. Abridged edition. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Daniel Hillis holds some forty patents, sits on the scientific advisory board of the Santa Fe Institute, and is a fellow of the Association of Computing. His many awards include the Hopper Award, the Spirit of American Creativity Award, and the Ramanujan Award. Hillis was named the first Disney Fellow and became vice president of research and development at the Walt Disney Company in 1996.
Top customer reviews
The author rises to this challenge very well, building his explanation from the ground up, starting with an account of Boolean logic - i.e. the construction and manipulation of AND, OR and INVERT functions - that's firmly rooted in concrete examples (he points out that, although these functions are invariably implemented using electrical signals in a circuit, they could equally well be built using sticks and strings, or water-operated valves). Having laid down this foundation, he is able to move to more high-level topics such as programming, algorithms, heuristics, parallel computing, data encryption and compression, and adaptive systems, ending up with a lucid discussion about whether it will be possible one day to build a computer which could be described as (in a nod to the name of his old company) a thinking machine.
In spite of the abstruseness of these later subjects, he never leaves the reader behind, being careful to explain new ideas in simple terms that are easily understood. For example, he quotes the philosopher Gregory Bateson's definition of information as 'the difference that makes a difference', and points out (p10) how this could be applied to a binary signal, or bit. Elsewhere, he remembers (p110) a talk he gave in a New York hotel in the 1970's where he predicted that there would soon be more microprocessors than people in the USA. This caused one of his listeners to ask sarcastically, "Just what do you think people are going to do with all these computers? It's not as if you needed a computer in every doorknob!" - a humorous remark at the time, but one which has become true today, since each doorknob in that hotel (and thousands of others) contains a microprocessor which controls the lock. It's touches like this that make this a compelling read, giving the reader penetrating insights into the workings and development of these ubiquitous machines.
Some aspects seem loosely prescient. The statement "The pseudorandom number generator can pass all normal statistical tests of randomness" is a useful reminder particularly with the shameful backdooring of Dual_EC_DRBG. The game Go gets a brief mention since at the time of Deep Blue, humans were at least still masters of this game. It's unstated but perhaps for there's an implied question of how long this would remain the case. The one thing it misses or omits is the escape of the graphics co-processors from the specialist world of Silicon Graphics Inc to the commodity world of the home desktop market. In the last decade or so, these cost-effective GPUs have been 'borrowed' for other important tasks like neural network training.
If I were nitpicking, the paragraph on adaptive automatic pilot systems is very futuristic and doesn't contrast this idea with the current challenges of software reliability usually achieved with modular designs, extensive testing and some degree of formal verification. Continuous learning is an interesting area with active research on 'catastrophic forgetting'. It's going to be a long, long time before an ANN can apply skills/experience from one problem to another. (If Amazon is still around in 20 years I'll be back to comment on this.)
It's very good value now in the second-hand market! I was surprised to see an old library stamp in a copy I purchased. I'd say that library made a mistake in disposing of this.
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