Category Archives: Book Review

Book and magazine article reviews

Superforecasting Will Become the Next Big Thing Unless It Doesn’t

Forecasts That Don’t Mean Much

Comedian George Carlin had a character called Al Sleet, otherwise known as the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman. Sleet’s speciality was vague or ambiguous weather forecasts, and his most famous was:

Tonight’s forecast: Dark. Continued mostly dark tonight, changing to widely scattered light towards morning.

Everyone can find this funny, but it takes a very special kind of intellect like Philip Tetlock to take it seriously. Why seriously? Because Tetlock has spent much of his career studying forecasting, why we get it wrong (as we often do), and whether we can get it right (which, with discipline, we sometimes can).

Meteo-France Rhone Alpes 502x200
A forecast

He has just come out with a new book, Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction, which I am going to discuss in just a second.

But first, we have to talk about dart-throwing chimpanzees.

Continue reading

An Edge Question: What’s Your Law?

On Falling Behind

When I returned to writing this blog after a bit of a hiatus, I made a faintly uttered promise to myself that I would try to write something once a week.

I am currently struggling heroically with an article on Philip Tetlock’s masterful book Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction, but it will just not submit.

It’ll fall eventually, but in order to keep my promise for this week, I’ve had to resort to pinching material, very nearly wholesale, from the site. You’ll understand in a second when I say a candidate for Varey’s Law could be…

“Intellectual theft can be a good thing.”

The Edge Question, 2004: What’s Your Law?

Every year, John Brockman of poses a question to Edge contributors, and turns the responses into a book. In fact the group of Edge contributors contains some of the smartest people on the planet, mostly (but not exclusively) being made up of scientists from all fields.

In 2004, Brockman’s question was “What’s Your Law?”.

Here are some of the best responses…

Continue reading

On the 300 Millisecond Issue II

I have written earlier about Sam Harris’ book Free Will, particularly a passage on page 8 where he cites the work of Benjamin Libet. To recap, in the 1970’s, Libet used EEG scans to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex region can be detected approximately 300 milliseconds before a person is consciously aware of having taken a simple decision to move his or her finger or wrist.

This work has been used as an argument against the notion of free will, and Harris doesn’t hesitate to press it into service:

These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next — a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please — your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision”, and believe you are in the process of making it. (Free Will, pg. 9)

It strikes me as curious that Harris should lean so heavily on an experiment that tests such a simple aspect of conscious human decision making. It is a big leap from trivial finger movements to more decisive or contemplative situations in life, where really significant issues of free will come into play.

Continue reading

Book Review: What to Think About Machines That Think

Intelligentsia impresario John Brockman has done an admirable job of assembling some very impressive thinkers for his web site Although most are scientists, there is a fair number of people from the other estates, and the cross-fertilisation of ideas frequently draws even hardened specialists out of their shells, to make pronouncements on things well outside their fields of expertise.

Hal and Dave
Hal and Dave

Although this is not always a good thing, it does make entertaining, stimulating discussion, and I can recommend the site wholeheartedly.

Every year Brockman sets a current question to his group (whose members are, cringingly, called “Edgies”), and turns the resulting answers into a book. This year’s question, and the book’s title, is “What do You Think About Machines That Think?”

The responses, which take the form of short essays, are only very roughly organized by theme. These themes bleed slowly from one to another, without dividing section headings. This provides a surprisingly effective minimalist structure to the book, hinting at emergent concepts that transcend the distinct points made by individual authors.

There are so many excellent ideas presented in the book, that I can recommend it, too, without reservation. So rather than write a normal critical review here, I thought it would be more useful to look at these themes, especially how the thinkers have thought through them, rather than just analyse what they’ve written. From this we can glean a lot about the state of the fields of AI and machine intelligence.

Continue reading