Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Book reviews: Double post combo

I recently finished two interesting books which I will now chat about...

The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil

This book is a somewhat breathless and optimistic view of the future of technology. In particular Ray focuses on AI, since he's an AI expert and entrepreneur this is hardly surprising.

In addition he looks at Nanotechnology and Genetic Engineering.

I spent a lot of time thinking about immortality; and the author shares my view that death is kind of a loss of information... the loss of you, your consciousness and memories. I've always wanted to have my brain set up in a jar and hooked up a computer and the internet when I die.

So I was intrigued and optimistic to read about the potential tech revolution that may be with the next couple of decades, that could enable just that kind of insanity.

The key point of the book is that technology is developed at an exponential rate, rather than linear. And at the same time we are approaching some kind of singularity where we will merge with our technology in a way that is probably not even conceivable to us.

I have to take it all with a pinch of salt. There's not a lot of support for the ideas in the book. Peter Norvig, AI researcher and google director of research, commented on the singularity in the recent conference, and was not exactly optimistic.

Still, an interesting read, I learned a lot of stuff I didn't know about current technology. On particular that researchers have been able to integrate artificial neurons with mice, and that there is an artificial model of the ear that is modeled at neuron level and yet exhibits many of the features of a human ear.

I'd recommend this to anyone interested in AI and the possible dramatic future of technology and humanity.

Shakespeare: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd.

Ironically, I picked this up in the book shop, and I was thinking it would be quite a chore to read. Peter Ackroyd's books tend to be packed full of knowledge, and I've found some of them a little dry in places.

I did want to read about Shakespeare though since I am English after all, and I don't know much about him, so I really wanted to make the effort to read it.

In the end I was really glad I did, since his life and times were really quite a lot more colourful and eventful than I quite expected. Being a biography, the book brings his plays to life somewhat, since for each one we know a little of what was happening in Shakespeare's life, the actors working with him and the political climate of the day.

It covers unexpected and interesting topics such as the multiple occurrences of different words for 'vagina', and what sex was life in those days of little sanitation and personal hygiene.

Shakespeare's friends get locked in the Tower of London, killed in duels and beheaded, whilst he manages to somehow keep in favour with Royalty and not annoy his enemies enough to end up in a deadly duel himself.

William is portrayed as the genius he no doubt was, and often the book speaks warmly of him. Not only as a great writer, but as a man with many friends, with a good head for business, a fascination with royalty and social status and finally a responsibility for his extended family.

Peter Ackroyd has also written London's biography, and many other books on London's history. It is no surprise to find the city playing a large part of Shakespeare's story, and he often speaks affectionately about that old town as he does about the great writer himself.

I would heartily recommend this to anyone with half an ounce of interest in Shakespeare, London, and the Elizabethan era in general, and I greatly enjoyed it.

Other books by Peter Ackroyd I've enjoyed include is fictional stories based in London "Chatterton" and "Hawksmoor". Both of which follow the fortunes (or lack of) of a couple of historic Londoners.