Three New Technology Books About Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence

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.

You can read my full review of it for Science Magazine here.

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. 

Materials Scientist Mark Miodownik’s Enthralling Explanation of Our Physical World

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If Helen Czerski’s Storm in a Teacup is a whimsical explanation of how things work, Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters is more like a love letter to the materials which compose our world. Stuff Matters is not just delightful and easy to follow along, it’s simply enthralling. Scientific American’s description of Miodownik’s “infectious enthusiasm” for explaining the history and science of everyday materials is apt.

Czerski and Miodownik share a fascination and excitement for the commonplace: while Czerski delights in the physics which makes her toaster heat her toast, Miodownik holds an unrivaled appreciation for cement. Both of these scientists are eager to share these kinds of unexplored wonders of the world with inquisitive minds, and both should be approached with a childlike sense of curiosity.

Reading Stuff Matters is an excuse to ask your friends, “did you know…?” followed by an absurdly obscure fact about something they encounter in their physical world every day. This is the “infectious enthusiasm” which Scientific American described in their own review. In the video included below, Miodownik presents the charming behaviors and startling characteristics of various strange materials with an energy he conveys equally through his writing.

If you’re an avid reader, you’ve likely come across a vast array of books with unique qualities, but Stuff Matters brings a whole different set of unique characteristics to the table. Miodownik’s book is structured around a single photograph he first presents in the introduction. It’s a deceptively simple black and white photograph of the author himself seated at a table atop his roof, his eyes downcast at a book, the city buildings rising behind him. Each cleverly-titled chapter proceeds to break down a material seen in this photograph.

Steel. Concrete. Paper. Diamonds. Chocolate. In his book, Miodownik chooses some of the most “marvelous materials that shape our man-made world” and strips them down, revealing their secrets, forcing you to stop and consider the things you encounter every day. Most of us have not thought much about these materials before, and Miodownik’s approach is indeed one of thoughtfulness. He also writes with a tone of reflection, often utilizing startling and amusing anecdotes from his own life to build a personal connection with a materials he will discuss. In one unforgettable example about an accident in which he collided with a tractor while out for a drive, he describes the sensation of being catapulted through the windshield of a car “like hitting a wall of transparent ginger snaps”.

Miodownik’s ability to describe materials in vivid ways that make us think twice about them, or in some cases even think about them in the first place, is a magical ability in an author writing about science. By seamlessly weaving interesting history and fascinating science together and presenting it to readers with tongue-in-cheek humor and personal anecdotes, Stuff Matters is clearly deserving of its awards.

It’s also clearly deserving of your time spent reading it. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore.