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on 11 November 2017
I'm giving this book to someone. If I was to take one book to a desert island this would be the one. The first chapter on Turing machines addresses the main theme of the book but it is a bit boring, which makes the difficult bits even more difficult. That is not the author's fault as Turing machines are boring to the non-expert. After that the book takes off and you are on an exciting tour of mathematics and physics. There are difficult bits but it is deeply interesting and I'm amazed that one man can know all this stuff. However, he is very old and has been working at the forefront of the field for decades, so it is not surprising that he has picked up stuff here and there.
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on 4 August 2014
To approach this book one needs to start from the premise that Roger Penrose has a brain the size of a planet. Dr Penrose’s idea of ‘simplifying’ the maths still leaves his arguments way beyond us mortals - but I have still given the book 4 stars. I have a Masters degree in Physics (admittedly from a long time ago, though I still remember taking a Penrose paper out of the library), but I could not follow much of the maths when reading through it, and doubt that I could even if I studied it.

That said, I found it very interesting and worthwhile to skip through the difficult bits and read what I could understand. You could say that he should have left out all the maths but I find it satisfying that he provides all the technical background that makes him totally convincing.

He raises many philosophical points, not always obviously relevant to his stated subject, and his very open on where he is unsure, or where there are opposing viewpoints to his own. Altogether a worthwhile read, but as another reviewer has pointed out, not for the faint hearted or those only interested in popular science.
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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 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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 15 August 2008
I give this book five stars cos it occupies, along with Barrow and Tipler's The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford Paperbacks) a niche that nothing else quite does. It is on the furthest edge of popular science writing before you penetrate into the realm of the specialist. So for a person like me with undergraduate maths it gave me a lot of information without intolerable effort. It was tough going but very worthwhile. For anyone with less than A-level (I mean 70's A-level) maths though, I'd stick with the books with no equations, like the very popular A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, which I rate more as a human interest story than as an introduction to any actual cosmology.

As for Penrose's conjectures about the mental. Well, his ideas have been around for a while now and as far as I can tell have not led us to anything new. He exhibits the common fuzziness of the day, that is only really now getting tightened up on in the Philosophy of Mind literature, of conflating the problem of mentation, i.e. what goes on in the mind of a mathematician when she's having a great insight, with the problem of consciousness, i.e. what is it? They are both profound and mysterious problems but they are not the same problem, and not even necessarily related. I can still see a space for how quantum mechanical, i.e. truly random, processes might get exploited in pruning decision trees when searching a problem space, i.e. with respect the mentation problem. But how quantum randomness might contribute to consciousness seems more problematic.

The most incisive contribution to the question of consciousness I'm aware of right now is Edelman & Tononi's A Universe of Consciousness How Matter Becomes Imagination.

But this book is great for the physics, and certainly at the limits of what someone of my educational background can indulge in as a spare time activity. Penrose's next book on this topic Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness was more mathematically rigorous and lost me pretty well straight away.
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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 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 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 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 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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