Skip to main content

Donald Mitchie: on Machine Intelligence, Biology & More – Ashwin Srinivasan (ed.) ****

This is an eclectic collection of writings by and about Donald Michie, the Scottish-born scientist whose career spanned over half a century and covered many topics, most notably computer science and reproductive biology. Michie died in a car accident in 2007, aged 84, and “Machine Intelligence” is a tribute to his life and work compiled by the eminent computer scientist Ashwin Srinivasan.
The book varies widely in style and subject matter, but it is interesting and readable throughout. It comes in three parts, “Machine Intelligence,” “Biology,” and “Science and Society.” Each section is divided into chapters containing 3-5 pieces, with helpful introductions to the chapters by Srinivasan.
The writing is aimed at the non-specialist reader, and specialists may be disappointed by the absence of any of Michie’s many ground-breaking scientific papers. The upside is that experts and novices alike are treated to insider accounts of Michie’s code-breaking at Bletchley Park during WWII, reflections by Michie on how scientists work and the role of government in science, and thoughtful discussions of big topics in AI – such as the Turing test and the role of subconscious or “inarticulate” thought in cognition. Especially worthwhile are Michie’s thoughts on the difference between brute-force solutions to computing problems and truly intelligent solutions.
Michie was much more than a scientist, and some of the most witty and enjoyable writing in the book sees Michie as science administrator, social commentator, and popular science writer. Some of my favourites are his cutting comments on the Lighthill Report (the government report in the early 1970s that almost killed Britain’s nascent AI industry), his article about the reading habits of scientists (they do surprisingly little), and his account of a bizarre trek from London to Moscow that Michie undertook at the height of the Cold War.
“Machine Intelligence” is not a detailed or systematic treatment of Michie’s ideas – it’s a series of snapshots rather than a portrait. Articles on the same theme (like the difference between clever and intelligent computers) are sometimes scattered through the book rather than grouped together. And there are too many typographical errors. But “Machine Intelligence” succeeds as a readable tribute to a remarkable man, giving many glimpses of Michie’s insight, humour, and wide-ranging enthusiasm for science.
Hardback:  
Review by Michael Bycroft

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…