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Edward Ashford Lee - Plato And The Nerd

This book makes a bold claim: that the creators of digital technology have an unsurpassed medium for creativity. Technology has advanced to the point where progress seems limited not by physical constraints but the human imagination. Writing for both literate technologists and numerate humanists, Lee makes a case for engineering as a deeply intellectual and fundamentally creative process. Explaining why digital technology has been so transformative and so liberating, Lee argues that the real power of technology stems from its partnership with humans.

Lee explores the ways that engineers use models and abstraction to build inventive artificial worlds and to give us things that we never dreamed of — for example, the ability to carry in our pockets everything humans have ever published. But he also attempts to counter the runaway enthusiasm of some technology boosters who claim everything in the physical world is a computation — that even such complex phenomena as human cognition are software operating on digital data. Lee argues that the evidence for this is weak, and the likelihood that nature has limited itself to processes that conform to today’s notion of digital computation is remote.

Lee goes on to argue that artificial intelligence’s goal of reproducing human cognitive functions in computers vastly underestimates the potential of computers. In his view, technology is co-evolving with humans. It augments our cognitive and physical capabilities while we nurture, develop, and propagate the technology itself. Complementarity is more likely than competition.

Edward Ashford Lee is Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught and researched digital technology and computer science for more than thirty years.

About the title, he writes: “The title puts into opposition the notion that knowledge, and hence technology, consists of Platonic Ideals that exist independent of humans and is discovered by humans, and an opposing notion that humans create rather than discover knowledge and technology. The nerd in the title is a creative force, subjective and even quirky, and not an objective miner of preexisting truths.”

Here’s a rough overview of the contents:

I.  Yang

Shadows on the Wall
Inventing Laws of Nature
Models of Models of Models of Models of Things
Hardware is Ephemeral
Software Endures
Evolution and Revolution

II.  Yin

The Limits of Software
Probability and Possibility
Final Thoughts

“In every decent bookstore, you find shelves full of volumes written by top mathematicians, physicists, and biologists explaining the state of the art in their field and its impact on the human condition. This book is important because it is high time for computer scientists and engineers to do the same.”
Thomas A. Henzinger, President, IST Austria

Published in 2017, hardcover, 288 pages, 60 b&w illustrations.

Publisher: MIT Press / ISBN: 9780262036481
Medium: Book


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