Forbes | 7 Classic Books: to deepen your understanding of artificial intelligence

Source: Kurzweil

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note: This story has been collected for the Kurzweil library archive.


publication: Forbes
story title: 7 Classic Books: to deepen your understanding of artificial intelligence
author: by Rob Toews
date: December 2019


— introduction —

The computer software field of artificial (AI) has never been the subject of more attention + analysis than it is today. Almost every week, it seems a new best-selling book comes out examining the tech, business, or ethics of AI.

Yet few of the topics + debates at the center of today’s AI discourse are new. While not always recognized by commentators, artificial intelligence as a serious academic discipline dates back to the 1950s. For well over half a century, many of the world’s leading minds have devoted themselves to the pursuit of machine intelligence — and have grappled with what it would mean to succeed in that pursuit.

Much of the public discourse around AI in year 2019 has been anticipated (and influenced by) AI thought leaders — going back decades. Below is a selection of 7 classic books about intelligence:

  • what it is
  • how we might build machines that have it
  • what that would mean for society

These books have played a formative role in the development of the field of AI. Their influence continues to be felt today. For anyone seeking a deep understanding of AI’s complexities, challenges, and possibilities — they are essential reading.

— Rob Toews



book | no. 1

book title: Godel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid
deck: A metaphorical fugue on minds + machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll
author: by Douglas Hofstadter PhD
year: 1979

— summary —

The book Godel, Escher, Bach is sometimes referred to as “the Bible of artificial intelligence” — but author Douglas Hofstadter PhD rejects the label.

The book’s central theme is that — through self-reference and “strange loops” — systems comprised of independently meaningless elements can acquire meaning and intelligence. Hofstader identifies versions of such recursive systems in fields as diverse as: mathematics, music, art, and computer science.

To sketch out his subtle thesis, Hofstadter takes his reader into the depths of number theory, classical music, and the computing tech stack. He employs fanciful dialogues between fictional characters in the style of author Lewis Carroll. He structures the book’s chapters, paragraphs, and sentences to embody his points about recursion.

Although Hofstadter was an unknown author at the time of its publication — Godel, Escher, Bach won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

the Atlantic | The man who would teach machines to think


book | no. 2

book title: the Society of Mind
author: by Marvin Minksy PhD
year: 1986

— summary —

Marvin Minsky PhD is one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence. In The Society of Mind — his most famous and readable book — he lays out his perspectives on how the human mind works, and how we might build machines that simulate it.

Minsky’s over-arching thesis is that the human mind is not one coherent entity but rather a society of countless smaller “agents” — each devoted to a narrow set of tasks, functioning in synchrony to produce intelligent behavior.

Mirroring this thesis, the book is structured as 270 one-page essays. Each essay is a piece of the puzzle — as the reader progresses through the book, Minsky’s overall theory of mind emerges.

He writes at the end of the book: “What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle.”


book | no. 3

book title: On Intelligence
deck: How a new understanding of the brain will lead to the creation of truly intelligent machines
author: by Jeff Hawkins
year: 2004

— summary —

In his book On Intelligence, author Jeff Hawkins posits that a single fundamental “algorithm” underlies all information processing in the human brain: a feed-forward mechanism that predicts future states.

Hawkins’ theory of intelligence has been highly influential across neuro-science, machine learning, and philosophy over the past 15 years. It has also been regularly criticized. In year 2005 Hawkins co-founded the AI start-up Numenta with Dileep George PhD to pursue these principles.


book | no. 4

book title: Alan Turing: the Enigma
deck: The persecuted genius of war-time code-breaking and the computer revolution
author: by Andrew Hodges PhD
year: 1983

— summary —

It is only a slight over-statement to say that scientist Alan Turing PhD created the computer and the field of artificial intelligence. His seminal 1936 paper — vastly ahead of its time — laid the conceptual groundwork for the entire field of digital computing. He was one of the first thinkers to take the idea of artificial intelligence seriously.

His 1950 paper — famously opens with the line “I propose to consider the question: can machines think?” — introduced the Turing test, which remains a touchstone in AI literature today.

foundation papers by by Alan Turing PhD

The 1983 book by Andrew Hodges PhD is the authoritative biography of Turing’s life. Prior to its publication, Turing’s accomplishments were not widely know — due largely to the total secrecy that for decades surrounded his war-time work on cryptography for the Allies at Bletchley Park.

Hodges’ book played a pivotal role in bringing Turing’s ideas to light and establishing him at the forefront of the pantheon of machine intelligence pioneers.

On the topic of AI, Turing made it clear where he stood. Generations ahead of his time — in words still provocative today — Turing wrote in year 1951: “It’s customary to offer a grain of comfort, in the form of a statement that some peculiarly human characteristic could never be imitated by a machine. I cannot offer any such comfort, for I believe that no such bounds can be set.”


book | no. 5

book title: the Singularity Is Near
deck: When humans transcend biology
author: by Ray Kurzweil
year: 2005

— summary —

Perhaps no book or author presents a more relentlessly optimistic view of our tech future than author Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near. Grounding his arguments in the concepts of exponential growth and accelerating returns — Kurzweil anticipates a future in which run-away machine intelligence transforms everything about the world as we know it.

He predicts this super-intelligence will enable us to control our own genetics, master nano-technology, and manipulate physical matter at will. Eventually, human + non-human intelligence will merge, transcend biology, and spread through-out the universe.

While his conclusions are startling, his approach is meticulously data-driven. As the New York Times put it: “Ray Kurzweil’s vision of our super-enhanced future is completely sane + calmly reasoned.”

The concept of the singularity has inspired generations of technologists. It has also garnered plenty of ridicule for its fantastical, utopian overtones. Kurzweil did not invent the idea — credit goes to the legendary mathematician John von Neumann PhD in the 1950s — but he and this book have played a major role in popularizing it.


book | no. 6

book title: Descartes’ Error
deck: Emotion, reason, and the human brain
author: by Antonio R. Damasio PhD
year: 1994

— summary —

Conventional wisdom has long held that — while the intellect is logic-based and objective — emotions make us irrational and cloud our judgment.

In his book Descartes’ Error neurologist Antonio Damasio PhD famously re-conceptualized the relationship between emotion + intellect. The book argues that emotions play an essential role in cognition + decision-making — and without them our intellectual capabilities would not be possible.

This theory of intelligence has intriguing implications for AI. Marvin Minsky PhD once said: “The question is not whether intelligent machines can have any emotions, but whether machines can be intelligent without any emotions.”


book | no. 7

book title: the Mind’s I
author: by Douglas Hofstadter PhD + Daniel Dennett PhD
year: 1981

— summary —

In their book the Mind’s I authors Douglas Hofstadter PhD a+ Daniel Dennett PhD examine the most fundamental of questions:

  • what is thought
  • what is consciousness
  • what is the mind

They do so through an annotated anthology of pieces from contributors as diverse as: Richard Dawkins PhD, Jorge Luis Borges, and Alan Turing PhD.

The book contains rich insights about what it would mean for a machine to think — interweaving perspectives from psychology, engineering, philosophy, and literature. But don’t expect to walk away with any straight-forward answers.

They write in the book’s preface: “We believe there are currently no easy answers to the big questions. This book is designed to provoke, disturb, and befuddle its readers.”


— notes —

AI = artificial intelligence


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story title: Forbes | 7 Classic Books: to deepen your understanding of artificial intelligence
deck: no. 5 | The Singularity Is Near — by Ray Kurzweil
year: 2020
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