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

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

James S. Trefil, Author, Trefil, Author John Wiley & Sons $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-471-15536-2

The books of physicist Trefil (A Scientist in the City, etc.) can inspire praise for insight and clarity or criticism for self-importance-or both, as his latest does. Trefil's exploration of what sets humans apart from other living beings on the one hand, and from artificially intelligent computers on the other, covers a broad range. He begins with evolution, then traverses cognitive science from biological as well as computational perspectives and ends with the developing science of complex systems. In all of these subjects, he demonstrates his skill in translating academic notions into language accessible to the educated general reader. He demonstrates insight as well, 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. This fine science writing, however, is undercut at times by Trefil's tone. He accuses computer scientists and biologists of ignorance of each other's work, then suggests that he has the rare insight to be able to look at both fields at the same time. He speaks demeaningly of ""computer jocks,"" rather than recognizing that most computer scientists understand both the value and the limitations of models in their field, just as he does those in his. In the end, he pronounces his vision: of machine intelligence as a tool to enhance human intelligence. This is an important insight, but it is not new-or unique. (Mar.)