Last week was computer science education week, and these three books are perfect for those of us curious about how algorithms, artificial intelligence, and robots really work — and how they first came about.
In British mathematician Hannah Fry’s award-winning new book Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms (Sept 2018), she dissects algorithms and AI, indulging readers in how our own data is being used and, quite possibly, abused.
In science historian Adrienne Mayor’s new book Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology (Nov 2018), Mayor presents readers with science folklore at its finest. Who first came up with the idea of robots, anyway?
Lastly, Kate Devlin’s book (out this month!) is called Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots and it’s everything you could ever hope for in a book about sexy automatons. Maybe not one to let the kids get a hold of, but definitely one that will spark conversations with coworkers while you’re reading it on your lunch break.
1. Hello World by Hannah Fry
When I picked up a copy of Hello World from the bookstore I work at, I’ll admit I was very nervous. Last month, I was on a streak with reading one disappointing book after another. I kept feeling like the books I was reading weren’t something I wanted to spend time writing a review for. But disappointing streaks happen to every avid reader now and then, and they are usually broken by something stunningly absorbing and well-written. For me, that was Hannah Fry’s Hello World.
Fry’s debut book reads like a casual conversation full of warmth, intelligence, and wit. She expertly guides readers through basic and essential concepts for understanding how algorithms function and what purpose they serve. Her book is also the first popular science book I have come across to concisely explain artificial intelligence and neural networks. As a result, the reader comes away feeling informed without being talked down to. Fry is not only an associate professor of mathematics and a computer scientist, she’s also aware of the society in which she’s writing – readers can trust they’re in the hands of an expert as well as an individual who is socially conscious.
For example, Fry investigates what happens when algorithms programmed for justice are actually racial-profiling. How can we make an algorithm that relies on statistics, unbiased? Fry discusses the problems with having a human judge determine whether or not to sentence someone. Could an algorithm better predict whether someone is guilty, whether they should be released in the future, and even how long their sentence should be? But we tend to want a human touch in these life-altering decision – should we dare to let algorithms decide for us, we fear they may sentence the innocent or set the guilty free. Of course, that’s already happening with human error.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying about social media, if you aren’t paying for a product, you are the product. Why is Facebook free? And what exactly happens when we let those quizzes access our profiles, anyway? Fry poses these kinds of pertinent questions about our online activities and breaks down exactly what’s happening with your data – and how, in some cases, it’s even being used to manipulate your behavior.
2. Gods and Robots by Adrienne Mayor
Science historian and folklorist Adrienne Mayor’s new book Gods and Robots is a mesmerizing exploration into the concepts of robots in myth and lore. If you’re a Greek mythology buff or simply interested in how the idea of automated technology came about through ancient storytelling, Mayor does a good job diving into the subject. The book includes beautiful photos to accompany her retelling of the classical tales of Greek and Roman myth.
Mayor makes several connections to modern examples of automated technology, but only in passing comments. This book is much more about the ancient history of robots. After all, Mayor is not a computer scientist. But the book is nicely done overarching exploration into classical tales of automation.
3. Turned On by Kate Devlin
In this tantalizingly entertaining and witty book, sex-bot expert Kate Devlin examines the past, present, and future and sex robots and AI. Combining humorous anecdotes with sobering philosophical questions, Devlin expertly guides readers through the fascinating controversy around robots designed for pleasure. You might find yourself keeling over with laughter one moment and considering the realities of female objectification the next. Through every topic Devlin will be there holding your hand, howling with laughter and outrage alongside you.
Most of all I love Devlin’s attention towards detail – she cares deeply about the material she discusses. One chapter mentions the bond between humans and our pets and whether we may have a similar bond with robots one day. This triggered a childhood memory of a FurReal Friends Lulu My Cuddlin Kitty cat I had back when I was eight or nine years old. I loved that robot cat like I loved my real cat. When I stroked her, she rumbled with an electric purr and moved to your touch. If you ignored her for too long she would let out a soft, sad “meow”. You could scratch her and she would move her head back and forth. Then I accidentally left batteries in too long and they were destroyed by acid, so my dad took Lulu away and threw her out. I remember feeling so devastated over losing my “little robot kitty”, as I called her.
The ethical and moral implications of not only befriending robots or treating them as pets is one thing. It’s quite another when we model robots after female humans and use them for sex. After all, can a robot consent? These questions and more are explored in Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots, out on December 18th.
Find these books and more popular science at your local bookstore.