Dr. Fred Bortz

Are We Unique? A Scientist Explores the Unparalleled Intelligence of the Human Mind

by James Trefil

(Wiley, 1997, $24.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback, 256 pages)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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The books of physicist Trefil (A Scientist in the City; Science Matters) inspire either praise for insight and clarity or scorn for self-important prose. This effort provides plenty of ammunition for both points of view.

His exploration of what sets humans apart from other living beings, on one hand, and from artificially intelligent computers, on the other, covers a broad range. He begins with evolution, then traverses cognitive science from both biological and computational perspectives, and ends with the developing science of complex systems. In all of these, he demonstrates his skill of translating academic notions into language accessible to the educated general reader.

He demonstrates insight when he grapples with the question of computer consciousness and draws connections to the notion of emergent properties of complex systems. Consciousness, he suggests, may emerge from a complex system of neurons -- or transistors -- just as an avalanche emerges from a growing pile of sand grains.

Unfortunately, Trefil's self-importance asserts itself early and repeatedly on the subject of Artificial Intelligence. He accuses computer scientists and biologists of mutual ignorance of each other's work and then suggests that he has the rare insight to look at both fields together. He speaks demeaningly of "computer jocks," rather than recognizing that computer scientists understand both the value and limitations of models in their field, just as he does in his.

In the end, he pronounces grandly his vision of machine intelligence as a tool to enhance human intelligence. This is an important insight, but it is neither new nor unique. You can find the same theme, presented with equal clarity and greater respect for biologists and computer scientists, in a 1992 book for young adults, Mind Tools, by this physicist and reviewer.

Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz is an author of science books for young readers, including, as noted, Mind Tools: The Science of Artificial Intelligence.