Are We Unique: A Scientist Explores the Unparalleled Intelligence of the Human Mind / Edition 1

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A critically acclaimed and successful popular science author presents a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the latest scientific thinking about the controversial question: whether the human mind is unique or whether a machine could be built that would be as intelligent and "alive" as people are? Trefil offers a broad survey of prominent competing viewpoints, explaining each of the major arguments and tracing their evolution. What exactly human thinking is, how different human thinking is from animal thinking, and what makes people conscious are among the issues covered.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.)
Library Journal
Trefil, an acclaimed popular science writer and physicist, argues that the human brain is a highly complex adaptive system qualitatively different from those of other animal species and from even the most advanced computer systems. Incorporating recent theories on the evolution and function of the brain by such notables as Antonio Damasio and Francis Crick, Trefil presents an original, logical argument that examines both the structural and the functional aspects of neural systems. He is especially adept at demystifying complex scientific and mathematical concepts (quantum mechanics, Gdel's theorem, etc.) for the general reader. In a note accompanying his bibliography, Trefil comments on the engaging and accessible nature of recent literature on human consciousness. His latest book demonstrates a comparable measure of clarity, wit, and accessibility. Recommended for most public libraries.-Laurie Bartolini, Legislative Research, Springfield, Ill.
Kirkus Reviews
An attempt to explain the "problem of consciousness" scientifically, by the prolific popular science writer (A Scientist in the City, 1994, etc.) and NPR commentator.

Consciousness is a problem because it is difficult to define scientifically and yet would seem to be the one entity rendering humankind distinct from animals—and from the imminent artificial- intelligence capabilities of computers. Trefil (Physics/George Mason Univ.) easily dispenses with arguments that the DNA of some animals hardly differs from our own, and with the supposedly intelligent behavior of, say, chimpanzees and octopi, since, in the end, the gap between animal and human intelligence is impressively large. Computers prove harder to deal with, however. First, in his most brilliant chapters, Trefil lays out everything science knows about the workings of the human brain: how synapses fire to cause actions such as the resolution of sight, and the tracking of where individual functions, such as muscle control or the perception of motion, are born. With his model established, Trefil then tries to demolish the notion of a computer as a mechanical brain. The brain is not an electrical apparatus, but a chemical one, he points out, and therefore the parallel commonly drawn between the firing of a synapse and the connections between semiconductors is false. And what to do about that sturdy yet poorly understood mechanism known as intuition? Could a machine, no matter how sophisticated, ever manage such a leap? Even so, Trefil acknowledges that science will shortly be able to map every function of the brain and that eventually enough semiconductors, mimicking those functions, might be strung together to equal the brain's huge capacity.

Once he does so, only a mystical approach to consciousness can rescue him, but Trefil is at pains to avoid any but strictly empirical arguments. A gallant, moving, but in the end unconvincing argument.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471249467
  • Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 2/18/1998
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Meet the Author

JAMES TREFIL is Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University. He is the author of fifteen books, including coauthorship of the bestselling Science Matters and the perennially popular Sharks Have No Bones. A regular contributor to Smithsonian magazine, he is also a science commentator for National Public Radio. Mr. Trefil lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
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Table of Contents

Is There Anything Left For Us?

Humans and Animals: The Same but Different.

Of Fleeing Anemones and Smart Lobsters.

Can Animals Talk?

The Brain.

Of Tamping Rods and Grandmother Cells: How the Brain Works.

How Did We Get to Be So Smart?: The Evolution of Intelligence.

Moving Wheels and Moving Electrons: How a Computer Works.

Artificial Intelligence, Learning Machines, and Chinese Rooms.

Why the Brain Is Not a Computer.

Can the Brain Do Something a Computer Can't?: Godel and Penrose.

The Problem of Consciousness.

Consciousness and Complexity.

Is There Anything Left for Us?




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