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174 of 191 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2002
This book attempts to explain artificial intelligence in terms of how ant colonies, cities, and modern software operate. If it seems to have the feel of a magazine article, it's because it's not written by a professional in the field but by a professional writer who is a frequent contributor to trendy, popular publications such as Feed and Wired. Although it did not give me the understanding I was looking for about emergence theory, I would not dismiss it completely because it does have a lot of interesting information, as any good magazine article would. It has an overview of Jane Jacobs new urbanism that is both complete and illustrating, it explains how an intelligent kind of feedback makes some web sites successful as virtual communities, and what I found most interesting, how video games are evolving in ways that seem to give them a life of their own. If you are looking for an insightful, deep look at artificial intelligence for the layman, Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel Escher Bach" is still unchallenged. On the other hand if you are looking for a more relaxed, amusing and down to earth approach, filled with cool stuff you can impress your friends with, this book is for you.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
If you see an ant, you pay it little attention. It's the lines of ants that are really fascinating, and the colonies that really get things done. An ant by itself is not only a speck, it is a humble one, capable of little. It isn't just a matter of getting a lot of ants together so that by sheer numbers they multiply what one ant can do. Ants organize. They communicate. They have tasks, they assign workers, they shift assignments as old jobs get done and new ones come up. We have tried to understand this sort of organization in our own way. To get such things done ourselves, we would have to have a leader and subleaders, and in trying to understand ants, we even attributed to the queen of the ant colony a sort of CEO status. She isn't, of course; she is an egg-laying machine, but she is deep in the darkest parts of the colony, and has no idea about what her workers are doing or how to respond to quality assurance suggestions. She is not the chief of the bureaucracy of the ant colony. Something else is. Who is giving the orders?
No one. The ants are self-organizing, according to Steven Johnson, whose bright book _Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software_ (Scribner) is obviously not just about ants. Ants are just an easy example. Johnson's book is full of satisfying analogies. Take your brain, for instance. Those neurons don't know anything. Each one is capably of firing when stimulated, and that's about it. "No individual neuron is sentient," Johnson writes, "and yet somehow the union of billions of neurons creates self-awareness." Adam Smith posited an "invisible hand" which set the prices in economic systems, some supply and demand force that was completely free of any sort of conscious human control (just as the slime cells didn't have a higher authority). It wasn't planned, it just happened because of the number of independent actors on the economic stage. The immune system possessed by each of us gets smarter over the years as its biochemical parts share information, and it responds with individualized defenses, but it isn't conscious and it has no memory. The host and hostess of that last party you went to didn't decree that everyone would gather in the kitchen, but it happened anyway. Though cities may have a government, no one has told them to set up offices in the center, and branch off into suburbs and malls around them, and no one designed individual neighborhoods to be havens for artists or for homosexuals. The silicon circuits in a handheld computer can't do much but flop on and off, but they can learn your handwriting with remarkable skill. Other electronic stupids at can tell from what you have ordered what might appeal to you in the future, and offer up "your" selections with much more skill than an ad designed for everyone could possibly do.
Emergence is being used in video games, and undoubtedly will be a larger part of the software we interact with every day. There have, up to now, only been primitive and clumsy attempts to allow web sites and browsing to feed back on themselves in some emergent fashion to give users quicker access to just the site they had been long looking for. Couch potatoes, too, would make great ants, since there are so many of them and they could be simply connected with minimal feedback systems, with emergent miniseries and music videos as a result. When Johnson enters the ring as a prophet, one can only allow that his schemes might come to pass and we will have to wait and see. But in explaining a natural system (followed by a technological one) which has been present since before our neurons organized themselves but which has been appreciated by that organization only in the last few decades, Johnson displays enthusiasm and didactic skill. Some are hailing his book as a milestone on the path to the future, and maybe it is, but perhaps more important, it is an exhilarating and instructive course in a current trend of thought.
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580 of 688 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2002
Steven Johnson's "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software" (Scribner, New York, 2001),is a very bad book, shallow, careless, and disappointing. I was lured by its nominal subject, which interests me greatly, and now I'm sorry I bought it. Mr. Johnson is a young- very young- video gamer who has managed to parlay a superficial aquaintance with the vocabulary of modern science into a series of trendy popular books, incomprehensibly praised by such authorities as Steven Pinker and Esther Dyson.
The book opens with a fraudulent pictorial simile, juxtaposing a side view of the human brain and a map of Hamburg ca. 1850. Indeed they do resemble each other, and the reader is supposed to infer (with no help from Johnson) that the resemblance arises from the operation of similar governing principles. Quite apart from the validity of this conclusion, it apparently does not trouble Johnson that the brain is three-dimensional and the city map is essentially two-dimensional, or that the comparison would fail if a frontal view of the brain had been chosen, or if Paris or El Paso or Denver had been chosen instead of Hamburg.
It gets worse. At the most fundamental level, after reading the book I find it impossible to say what the author means by "emergence", his nominal title. When he discusses ant colonies it appears to mean swarm intelligence; when he discusses video games it appears to mean interactive software; at still other places it appears to mean whatever recent developments in the realm of computers or biophysics or city planning that he approves of.
Moreover, he appears to be totally ignorant of all science and mathematics that preceded his own adolescence. Although he has a great deal to say about self-organizing systems, you will search the index in vain for the names of John Conway, Oskar Morgenstern, John von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam, Stephen Wolfram, or most of the other pioneers of the field. When he does recognize a figure from antiquity (i.e., pre-1970), it is with worshipful adulation. He italicizes the name of Marvin Minsky as if he were a demigod, and finds a book by Norbert Wiener "curiously brilliant". What exactly is the curiosity?- that a brilliant mathematician should write a brilliant book? Likewise, you will find no entry in the index under "Boolean networks" or "cellular automata" or "crystallization" or "ferromagnetism." Under "entropy" you will find only the ludicrous assertion that in nonequilibrium thermodynamics "the laws of entropy are temporarily overcome." In short, Mr. Johnson gives new meaning to the phrase "born yesterday," a degree of ignorance and juvenile solipsism that borders on arrogance.
I note that other reader-reviewers assert that the book will provide lay persons with an introduction to a new science. No, it won't. The only thing it will provide is an introduction to bad science.
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53 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2002
Johnson has a riveting introduction and opening but the rest of the book falls flat with a superficial treatment of emergence. The author would also have the reader think that he knows alot about cities and their development, but his actual understanding of the subject is very, very thin.
Try "Signs of Life" by Richard Sole and Brian Goodwin for a much better elucidation of complexity science and the role of emergence. Another book just out is "Self Organization in Biological Systems" published by Princten University Press as part of its series on complexity science.
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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2002
I wasn't sure, when I bought this book, how much I would get out of it. The reviews I had read painted it as an introductory work and, since I already know a bit about emergence in the context of ecosystems, economies, social insects and human brains, I wondered if it might be too basic.
What can I say? Having read it, I agree that it is an excellent introduction to the subject: clear, wide-ranging and readable. But it is also far more. Even if you know much more than the author about, lets say, ant nests, the quality of the writing and the constant excursions into other fields to draw illuminating comparisons will keep you reading sections you might otherwise want to skip.
Even the book's style says something about the new sciences of complexity: instead of a linear trail of argument from axiom to conclusion, Johnson's thesis grows by picking out repeated patterns from seemingly unrelated fields, adding resolution like a Mandelbrot set slowly emerging from what at first looks like a random scatter of dots. In one chapter an unpromising section on the pitfalls of discussion groups suddenly backlinks to a previous discussion about city growth, gives a quick blast of Adam Smith, segues into media feeding-frenzies and reprises the theme of feedback mechanisms. By the end I was avidly reading about how some bunch called had dealt with the exponential growth of their Star Wars, programming and related geek stuff discussion group, not a topic that would normally grab me.
Unfortunately, the book does flag in a big way in the last few chapters, unless you're seriously interested in video gaming and the future of passive entertainment. In the author's defence, it must be very hard to write about the future of emergence, since its essence is that you never know what will pop up til your system plays out.
To sum up, Johnson is an engaging, insightful writer. He is particularly strong on the interaction between emergence and selection, realising that emergence in itself is not necessarily adaptive or good. He is sometimes a little weak on the difference between bottom-up organisation and true emergence. Finally, look out for the comparison between scientific revolutions and slime moulds: easily the cutest piece of science writing I have seen lately.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2005
The first chapter will pique your interest. The next two chapters will present interesting examples of emergent behavior. The remainder of the book will likely leave you feeling frustrated at the poor presentation and disappointed at the lack of follow-through on your expectations from chapter 1. The density of useful information drops precipitously as the book progresses, degrading to something at or below what you would expect to read in a blog (I'm serious). I must admit I haven't been able to finish the last chapter.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2003
The publishing industry continues to fuel the growth of popular science with titles like Emergence. I'm all for the growth of science titles, but the price comes at the increase in the number of watered-down, easy-to-digest material you'll find in bookstores. With the explosion in books written on the topic of complex adaptive systems, I found it difficult to choose a single book in the category. With little restraint, I dove in.
Emergence is a light, easy read devoted to describing systems that demonstrate adaptive behavior. The author sends significant time on contemporary systems such as the news media, the worldwide web, and large urban areas. On more than one occasion, the author appears to be reaching to make a conclusion. It's difficult to say whether he hadn't done the research or wanted the reader to draw his/her own conclusion.
Nonetheless, Steven Johnson paints an abstract picture of systems that demonstrate a larger, collective set of smarts. Like most abstract art, some people will be inspired and others won't. I found the writing and subject matter interesting enough to keep my curiosity fueled to pick up another book on complex systems. If you approach Emergence with a mind-set of getting more art than science, you're less likely to be let down.
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34 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2002
In this book, Johnson does a very good job of conveying the ideas of emergence in a simple, understandable way. For people that are just looking to get an idea of what the field is about, this book will provide the answers in an accessible manner.
The book beings with a compelling look at the way ant colonies function and uses this as a foundation for the ideas of emergence. Along the way he looks at several examples of emergence, including cities and software. He also touches on (or alludes to) current research areas such as genetic algorithms and pattern recognitition.
As someone who studied computer science I felt the book was a bit too light and missed some great opportunities to dig, at least a bit, into greater detail. However, I think many people will find this an approachable, enjoyable read.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2001
This book is neither as good or as bad as the other reviewers are making it out to be. It is a collection of descriptions of applications of swarm behavior. I can see where hard core defenders of chaos and complexity theories may think is is too folksy. And I can see where people not familiar with any of this would have a gee whiz attitude.
I personally think this a useful and pleasant, if chatty update to Kevin Kelly's phenomenal book, Out of Control.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2001
I came to this book without knowing anything about Steven Johnson or Feed. Checking it out subsequently on I was quite shocked by the harsh tone of some of the reviews.
For me, good writing and lack of intellectual pretention are virtues. The first requirement of mass communication is that it entertains. And this book is unashamedly entertaining. Steven Johnson instils it with his enthusiasm and curiosity.
In Johnson's case, lightness of touch reflects a personal interest in Complex Adaptive Systems and some mastery of the subject - not just a desire to trivialise. He shares his doubts and questions, and brings his own examples and experience. But does not over-extend his arguments or offer trite prescriptions.
We need people who popularise ideas and this is a thoughtful and useful contribution. I have bought a copy for my mother (who is 89), and commend it to anyone who is simply fascinated by ants, cities or the Internet phenomenon.
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