The Brain Makers by HP Newquist

I work for a science journal on the campus of Zhejiang Lab, a research institute dedicated to developing a variety of kinds of “intelligent computing” (artificial intelligence). I have a bachelor’s in computer science, but I have little knowledge of the development of artificial intelligence (something something… subsumption architecture… Eliza…). This book promised to remedy that.

What did I not like about The Brain Makers?

Newquist is a journalist writing for a general audience. That means his approach to nonfiction comes across as a little gimmicky to me. I’m used to reading academic nonfiction.

Journalists are storytellers, and storytellers are motivated to exaggerate, embellish, and cherrypick for the sake of the story. This is a lesson I learned from reading various different critiques of the work of Malcolm Gladwell. But I’d like to think that even if I hadn’t read  those critiques, I would notice the difference in tone between an academic history and a journalistic history.

Being a journalist means having an angle, preferably one that pushes emotional buttons. Newquist’s angle is right there in the subtitle of the subtitle: The History of Artificial Intelligence: Genius, Ego, And Greed In The Quest For Machines That Think. Yes, some of the scientists, entrepreneurs, and businessmen had real genius, he admits. But the other two thirds of his evaluation is that they were too greedy and proud, thus were doomed to fail. In some sense, of course, at least some of them succeeded, but in another sense, collectively, they didn’t: we still don’t have machines as powerful as the ones they thought were within reach.

Do I think his evaluation of people and events is wrong? Not necessarily. But I did feel like the negative subtitle set the tone for the book itself, and I think I would have enjoyed reading the book more if it had sounded less snide. Ambition is the reason we make any progress at all, and should be celebrated, in spite of the flaws and failures of the ambitious. Don’t let’s mock Icarus.

What did I like about The Brain Makers?

It stitched together a lot of stuff I vaguely knew, and added a lot more besides.  Although I think there’s some spin on the facts, the book has a tight focus on relating historical events.

The book wisely sidesteps issues of philosophical speculation. The focus here is not on whether machines can think or can be made to think, or what thinking is.

[M]uch of what has already been written about artificial intelligence is rife with philosophy, some of it interesting, much of it mundane and repetitive, and all of it a little too clever for its own good.

Similarly, the book for the most part does not concern itself with pop-culture depictions of artificial intelligence. (However, it does tell about the ancient yearning for human-like machines and says a golem story was the source of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment of the 1940 Disney movie Fantasia.) It mostly just describes AI depictions in the media from a financial standpoint: which CEO was getting profiled in the business magazines, and which companies got venture capital funding or went public or got bought… or went bankrupt.

And like I said, the book isn’t an academic history, so with a few exceptions, it doesn’t list or describe papers or theories that scholars were publishing. It just highlights specific personalities, trends, and concepts from the universities that had some important effect on the world outside the ivory tower.

What did I learn from The Brain Makers?

There have been “waves” of AI, surges and ebbs in excitement in the field. There are different geographic centers corresponding to different people, styles, and advancements. And for every step forward, there are dozens of dead ends. But there are also ideas that get abandoned, only to be taken up again later. The book tells where artificial intelligence has been. Nobody knows where it’s going.

All predictions are hit and miss, including the ones in Chapter 1 of The Brain Makers:

The following chapters… examine the next generation of intelligent systems [which] will be able to translate the spoken word into foreign languages, guide automobiles safely from one place to another, identify faces in a crowd, and adapt to their surroundings by learning from experience…. Smart appliances, such as VCRs that continually scan cable channels and record programs based on knowledge of users’ interests and preferences… are already in the testing stage.

I do not use a smart VCR. However, I do use machine translation—on my smartphone. The same device I used to read the book.

The book showed me, directly and indirectly, how much the world has changed, not just in terms of AI. Newquist followed the early development of AI by keeping notes and newspaper clippings in drawers in a filing cabinet. Today, “files” and “folders” are metaphors—icons on a screen—at least as often as they are physical objects.

The first part of The Brain Makers was published in 1994, and the second was published in 2018. A lot has happened in AI since then, but there is no Part 3… yet.

When and Why I Read The Brain Makers: The History of Artificial Intelligence

The author posted a link to the Kindle book (which was free) on Facebook in the AI group.

Genre: history of science
Date started / date finished: 31-May-23 to 28-Jul-23
Length: 696 pages
Originally published in: 2020
Amazon link: The Brain Makers: The History of Artificial Intelligence