The Emperor's New Mind

Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics

[Amazon Link]

Another deep dive into the bookshelves to read something I should have read closer to the time I bought it (circa 1991, in this case). Fortunately, my Book Picker script is (very slowly) making me more disciplined. In this case, there's a certain amount of punishment involved, too, because this book was kind of painful to read.

The author, Roger Penrose has had a long and distinguished career in math and mathematical physics. He hasn't received a Nobel (neither did his occasional more famous collaborator, Stephen Hawking), but he's won pretty much everything else.

This book lays out his contention ("theory" is too strong a word) that human consciousness can not be adequately explained by a computational model; the mind is not simply a computer made of meat. He believes that, deep down, there's some quantum weirdness going on. Hence, no matter how "smart" artifical intelligence might become, it will never adequately model human intelligence.

Or something like that. Penrose seems likeable enough, but he is not a gifted writer. And I'm pretty sure, despite the lavish blurbs on the cover, that very few lay readers outside the rarefied field of mathematical physics have read this all the way through with understanding.

Suggestion, should you attempt it: read the Prologue and Chapter 1, about 29 pages, where he sets up the issues. Then skip ahead to Chapter 10 (about 45 pages) where he provides his interesting takes on the "physics of mind".

His Chapter 10 discussion is contentious, slightly hand-waving, but fun to read. It slightly depends on the intervening ~375 (!) pages, where Penrose lays out (an incomplete list): the Turing-machine theory of computability; lambda calculus; fractals; Gödel's theorem; classical mechanics; special and general relativity; quantum mechanics; statistical mechanics; cosmology; quantum gravity. And a basic discussion of brain physiology.

Let me be clear: if you had a decent understanding of these topics, you would be a very advanced undergraduate, probably graduate, student in computer science. And physics. And mathematics. There's no way you're going to pick this stuff up by reading 375 pages of Penrose prose.

Still, an admirable attempt. I can't (however) help but think it was quickly written to hitch onto Hawking's A Brief History of Time coattails, another book famous for having been bought but not read.