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on 16 February 1999
Roger Penrose, one of the world's top physicists, summarizes modern science, examining topics including Turing machines, relativity, quantum physics, black holes, etc. At the end, he argues that the human mind can not be simulated by computers or anything algorithmic. The Emperor's New Mind is my favorite book, although I didn't feel that way the first time I read it. It is quite technical, compared to, for instance, A Brief History of Time, which covers some of the same topics. The second time I read the book, I really dedicated a lot of time to understand the material as well as I could, often working out problems with paper and pencil. This was necessary for me to see that his conclusion was related to the rest of the book. While Penrose obviously can not "prove" his belief, he gives a strong, fascinating arguement, and the book has definitely affected my philosophical views concerning consciousness.
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on 21 July 2006
I found this book stimulating and entertaining in equal measure. It looks at the questions such as -- if we had enough information, we could predict absolutely everything, or not? Is the human mind simply a machine (for example a computer)? Can we actually be transported Star-trek style or not? Are we (including our memories) just a collection of atoms that could be reconstituted?

In answering these questions Penrose embarks on a tour of the mathematical concepts and theories that underpin our understanding of the Universe.

There seems to be much more maths than is really needed, and there is a lot of theory (The book runs to over 500 pages after all). You will also need advanced A level maths to cope (on the basis that I just coped, and that's the level of maths I reached).

Entertaining and enjoyable IF you are interested in Maths. If you are not, stay away.
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on 18 July 2010
This is a profound book which, inspired by investigations into the nature of the human mind and of artificial intelligence, takes the reader on a roller-coaster tour of aspects of computer science, maths and physics. It calls for a lot of concentration and is not for the faint-hearted. Explanations of many concepts are at a fairly technical level, full of equations and symbols, and I could not help feeling that at times Penrose could have presented things more simply without losing the thread of the argument.

The ordinary reader would - as the author himself suggests - be well-advised not to strive to understand all the technical detail: it is possible to grasp the essence of what is being described without following all the intricacies Penrose goes into. The trouble is that this means skimming through much of the book.
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on 2 October 1997
I found the book to actually be more interesting in its discussion of physics and quantum mechanics than when I got to his thesis on mind and the computational impossibility of reproducing it in a computer. Although most of this is lucidly written and meticulous in its attention to detail, Penrose's final conclusion that the mind must have a quantum-mechanical aspect is unsupported by any evidence and seems to come from nowhere but his own deep desire to be more than chemicals. For me, the weakest part of the argument (in fact the only "evidence" he gives for his conclusion, really!) is the discussion of how long it takes a computer algorithm to solve a particular type of problem vs. how long it takes a person. It seems plausible, but ignores the fact that in this world, thousands of people work in parallel and cooperatively over many years to solve difficult problems and build on previous successes and failures. It ignores the roles of specialized education, folk knowledge, anecdotal evidence and how all of these result in common-sense elimination of fruitless pathways and recognition of fruitful pathways in human problem-solving.
Nevertheless, I found his physics primer (the first several chapters) to be better than many I have read, and the whole book gave me many nights of weird dreams. At the end, though, I wound up disappointed and feeling like I had been hoodwinked into someone's attempt to logically deduce his own personal faith.
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on 11 January 1999
Penrose's text should be seen as a two fold effort: the first is pedagogical: it exposes with superb insight the theories of mathematical physics, the physical basis of computation theory (he draws on an analogy with geometry), as well as, a Platonic philosophy of mathematics (the present reviewer believes in a naturalistic approach, but that is hardly the matter here!). IF this was all in the book one could hardly give it less than five stars. However, Penrose goes further and discusses the biology of cognition; in my opinion at this point he is a bit out of his personal scientific experience and contributions, and his thoughts are speculative; the further involment of cosmology in the work makes the whole project a bit incoherent. Overall Penrose connects cosmology with biology of cognition through the key theory of quantum gravity which he speculates ties them together!; well for those who like to study science and not mere speculations these mean that they shall not enjoy some parts of the book! The other central theme, that quantum gravity is nonalgorithmic, and thus since (as he speculates) cognition is a quantum-gravitational phenomenon it should be also nonalgorithmic, it is of course a consistent conception, but again science requires more than that, it requires ways to test ideas and in my opinion Penrose offers none! But after all perhaps he did not intented to write down a science book.
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on 9 May 2003
This book made me go away and learn math. After that I came back and found it incredible. It has inspired me to read books in many diverse subjects and made me consider taking a second degree. I had previously read "Brief History of Time" and found it frustrating and limited. Penrose covers the subjects in that book in two chapters of this one, and in a much more satisfying way because he is not afraid to use math. If you're prepared for the work, go read this book
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on 23 April 2003
At First glance, the topics covered by Roger Penrose may seem unconnected, but incredibly, he manages to connect them seamlessly, and then reaches astounding conclusions about the implications for any theory of everything or any artificial intelligence. On the way, Penrose covers such diverse topics as Turing machines, Tensors and General Relativity, the wave equation and the inner workings of the brain. Thankfully, he explains all of these concepts with such clarity that prior knowledge of them and a degree in mathematics are unnecessary, to gain a full understanding of the book, and the occasional differential equations are not relevant to the theme of the book, and indeed should not discourage any potential reader. Of course, even if you do have good knowledge of the concepts introduced, the book is still a fantastic read, just to see how Penrose links the concepts introduced and reaches conclusions on them.
The book is also rather different to typical books about contemporary physics, which hail Superstring theories as the theory of everything. Penrose does not speak in depth about the newest forms of physics, but instead follows his conclusions from proven physics, and although he makes few specific predictions about the Theory of Everything, he does give a complete overview of the main features that he feels a Theory of Everything should contain. The fact that the conclusions are followed through from the physics explained in the book makes the conclusions much more justifiable than those of Superstring theories, even if you disagree with Penrose's final conclusion. Although the book does not contain cutting edge physics, such as Superstring theory, this does not detract from the overall theme of the book, and indeed the speculations made by Penrose about the Theory of Everything are just as interesting as those in many books about Superstring theory.
Overall, the Emperor's New Mind is a challenging read, but delivers a complete tour of 20th Century mathematics and physics, as well as a taster of neurology, that leaves the reader feeling both enlightened and eager to learn more. Outstanding!
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on 29 August 2013
The aim of the book is to explore the notion of artificial intelligence (AI), whether or not machines can truly "think". In order to get to this question, Penrose first spends a lot of time (most of the book, in fact) looking at a wide variety of seemingly unrelated topics.

After an initial discussion of AI, Penrose launches straight into what is probably the hardest chapter to get your head round. It's all about algorithms, Turing machines and the computability of mathematical problems. He doesn't spare the detail with pages of binary digits and computer programming languages. It takes a long time to work through, but if you can brave it, there is much easier, and more enjoyable, science in later chapters.

Once you get over the initial hump, we ease back into some gentle maths with Penrose first outlining his neo-Platonic view of notions of reality. He does this via some very basic complex analysis, looking at the detail of the Mandelbrot set, though without going into too much depth for the casual reader. From here he looks at the world of classical physics and then quantum physics, giving the reader a general grounding in the basics of modern physics whilst every now and then alluding back to the premise of the book, essentially asking if a machine could ever be constructed that would be capable of making the intuitive leaps that humans have managed in coming to our present understanding of the cosmos.

For the most part, this should be readily understandable with a modicum of scientific education, though to someone who didn't do maths or physics at A-level, much of it may be new and take significantly longer to get to grips with. But even the expert reader shouldn't get complacent. Penrose's approach takes much which we may be familiar with and turns it sideways, giving good reason to scratch our heads and think things through anew. The 2nd half of the chapter on quantum mechanics is, admittedly, a bit tougher to get through; the section on spin was where I found my bookmark from the first time I tried to read it and gave up.

After finishing with quantum mechanics he looks at the thermodynamics of the universe, a line of thinking which led, many years later, to Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe. He ponders over some ideas of quantum gravity but not to any depth that one might be satisfied with. For other takes on that, I'd recommend The Road To Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (also by Penrose), Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory or Three Roads to Quantum Gravity (Science Masters) by Lee Smolin.

Eventually, Penrose comes back to the question of AI. In order to do this though, he needs to look at the basic physiology of the brain. Now Penrose is a mathematician and a physicist; he's not a neurologist. As such, this section of the book doesn't come across anywhere nearly as strong as the rest of the book. It is clear that this is a written by an educated amateur in the field rather than an expert. For much more detail on how the brain works, I would recommend John Ratey's A User's Guide To The Brain.

One fascinating idea that Penrose puts forth is that what may distinguish human intelligence and consciousness is not our rationality, but our irrationality. If all people behaved in accordance with a strict rationality then the strong AI proponents might have more of a case. But the very fact that irrational behaviour exists is what Penrose finds most interesting.

Ultimately, no firm propositions are put forward in this volume. The book ends with some musings and a tentative point of view. I intend to follow up, albeit not for a while, with Penrose's later volume, Shadows of the Mind. In the meantime, what we have is a book which is very loosely about artificial intelligence, but which is really a book about the foundation of computing, along with a tour of some of the great ideas of maths and physics.
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Sir Roger Penrose provides a contemporary review of theoretical computing, mathematical physics and briefly, the biology of the brain to create a case for the non-computability of the underlying functions of conciousness. Well, that's a reasonable summary to my mind, but others might read different things into this expansive, and in places complicated, book.
The Emperor's New Mind provided me with a stimulating update on modern thinking in this area, and a jump off point for further, more recent works on the subject. If you enjoyed Prof. Susan Greenfield's recent Beeb2 Brain Story, but have a bent towards the Physical Sciences and Computing then this is a book for you.
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on 25 September 2010
My copy of this book is now 21 years old, but I thought it appropriate to write a short historical review. When I first read this book I was interested to read in a semi-technical way about many of the Physics and Computation ideas of Roger Penrose. I am sure that many are still interested in the book for that reason. Since then Penrose has written other books, but this provides an introduction to his ideas which is half way between popular science and textbook. What has happened in the years that have followed is that this work has undoubtedly stimulated many researchers and others.

The other aspect of the book was his specific arguments about AI: which have ired many critics. Indeed his later book (Shadows of the Mind) contained a revised argument and dealt with about 20 criticisms of the AI argument from this book. Nevertheless this was not enough and more criticisms appeared which he later discussed in other works. So there is quite a trail to follow here for those who wish to take these topics seriously.

I would now suggest that he was really trying to make the case for the importance of non-Turing-Computability in this book. That it is important in scientific arguments from Cognition Theory and AI to Quantum Physics. Non-Turing computability is a very subtle topic to discuss (it was the subject of Turing's logic Ph.D) especially in a philosophically broad way. Many of the topics like Fractals and Penrose Tiling which found their way into this book, and do not immediately seem relevant to the arguments, are there to emphasise and display some non-computable mathematical entities. Oversimplifications of Penrose's arguments usually miss the significance of non-computability in them.

Having said all this I think that were this book to be written now, then some sections could be reworded. As a specific detail I think that in discussing the historical evolution of "algorithm" the definition of that term changes in the book without being noticed. It took me a few readings to notice this.

So if you want to delve into the debate about non-computability in physics and AI this is a book to read, but be aware that it is only the beginning of a longer story. The physics/cosmology discussions are a good introduction to his approach to those topics too.
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