Skip to main content

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths - Four Way Interview

Brian Christian is the bestselling author of The Most Human Human, which was named a Wall Street Journal bestseller and a New Yorker favourite book of 2011. His writing has appeared in Wired, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and The Paris Review, among others. Brian has been a featured guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Charlie Rose Show, NPR's Radiolab, and the BBC, and has lectured at Google, Microsoft, SETI, the Santa Fe Institute, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the London School of Economics.

Tom Griffiths is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at UC Berkeley, where he directs the Computational Cognitive Science Lab. He has received widespread recognition for his scientific work, including awards from the American Psychological Association and the Sloan Foundation.

Algorithms to Live By is reviewed here.

Why science?

BC: I think of my own orientation towards science in essentially religious terms. That anything exists at all (let alone life, let alone my own conscious experience) is wonderfully and sublimely mysterious. The most reverential attitude to adopt toward this grand mystery, in my view, is curiosity. One of the most powerful and profound frameworks we have for expressing that curiosity is science.

TG: When I went to university I deliberately chose not to do science, or at least to do a Bachelor of Arts rather than a Bachelor of Science degree. From my time in school I felt like science was about things that we already understand very well, and I wanted to learn about all the things that are still mysterious — minds, cultures, and thoughts. About half way through my degree I read a philosophy book that had a chapter at the very back about using mathematics to model the mind, and that was it! Suddenly I realized that it was possible to explore those mysterious things using rigorous, quantitative methods, and I was hooked.

Why this book?

BC: Since my teenage years if not even earlier, I have been fascinated by the correspondences and parallels, the homologies and isomorphisms, that exist between formal systems and natural ones. Sometimes drawing on real-world intuition enables us to solve a formal problem; sometimes it goes the other way, and a problem teaches us something that’s more broadly applicable. What we can learn about our own lives from the formal systems we’ve discovered in nature and designed in our own image? Algorithms to Live By explores and pursues this question, using computer science as a way of thinking about human decision-making.

TG: My academic research focuses on developing mathematical models of cognition, drawing on ideas from computer science — artificial intelligence and machine learning — to better understand how human minds work. As a result, I spend a lot of time thinking about the computational structure of everyday life, and out of that comes a vocabulary for describing the decision-making problems people face and a set of strategies for solving them. For me, this book is a way of sharing those insights.

What’s next?

BC: As a lover of both computer science and language, I’ve been fascinated for many years by their intersections in computational linguistics, and I’m excited to work more deeply on some projects at that particular conjunction.

TG: I’m currently working with my students and collaborators on the research questions that relate to topics we discuss in the book, specifically how thinking about human rationality in terms of using efficient algorithms (rather than always producing the right answer, regardless of the effort involved) changes the way we understand human cognition.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

BC: Data visualization. We’re living in an open-data boom, and I see this as the other great literacy, as critical in a civic context as in a scientific one.

TG: The last couple of years have seen significant advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and I’m excited about exploring what these advances can tell us about human minds.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…