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Imitation of Life: How Biology Is Inspiring Computing Hardcover – May 21, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-0262062411 ISBN-10: 0262062410 Edition: 1st
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Surveying scientific thinking about a postsilicon era in computing, Forbes homes in on one of the pioneering theorists of the computer, mathematician John von Neumann. In 1948 he lectured on the abstract resemblance of life's biochemical processes to computing. Today, the resemblance is no longer theoretical; Forbes highlights one scientist who has used DNA to compute a mathematical problem. That is one example, Forbes notes, of how biology is affecting computer science. Another influence is metaphorical, as researchers see in life's exquisite operations models to emulate, such that specialties have arisen to develop "evolvable hardware," "evolutionary algorithms," "nanoscale self-assembly," and security systems that mimic nature's immune systems. Touring the state of knowledge, Forbes (who has been associated with the military's technology nursery, DARPA) stakes out this scientific frontier in broad terms. Although the field's inherent complexity will deter casual readers, those with a serious interest will find Forbes an expert guide to the hottest research in a potentially revolutionary area of technology. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


"On the surface it seems that computing should be an attractive career for women, but for many it hasn't been. Margolis and Fisher give us a deep and nuanced insight into this troubling problem. No simplistic answers are offered, but rather the far richer perspectives of real human experience."--Wm. A. Wulf, President, National Academy of Engineering

"...A whirlwind history, richer even than its subtitle suggests." John Doyle and Marie Csete Nature

"...Forbes [is] an expert guide to the hottest research in a potentially revolutionary area of technology." Gilbert Taylor Booklist

"Though the text is clearly written, it offers a lot of technical information. Recommended..." Susan B. Hagloch Library Journal

"The analogies between computers and biological organisms have often been overstated, so I approached this book with modest expectations. I was pleased to find that it was often cautious and moderate, even as it described claims enthusiastically promoted by others. Forbes should be congratulated for presenting the case for 'bio-inspired computing' in a way that will make the controversies it evokes accessible to a very broad audience."--Joshua Lederberg, Professor Emeritus, Rockefeller University, 1958 Nobel Laureate in Medicine

"Computer engineering and biology have so much to say to each other; Nancy Forbes catalyzes this conversation and let's us listen in via her engaging style. This book will appeal to technophiles, interdisciplinarians, and broad thinkers of all stripes."--George M. Church, Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School

"How does our brain do such exquisitely complex things with such slow and unreliable components? Are there lessons here for building more capable and robust computers? Nancy Forbes gathers evidence from a wide variety of fields, providing a lively and accessible survey of what we know and don't know about these questions."--Wm. A. Wulf, President, National Academy of Engineering

"*Imitation of Life* successfully presents the case that for the first time in history, we are able to engineer machines that can both borrow designs from the complexity of life, through computer science, and implement the algorithms of life, through nanotechnology."--Stan Williams, Senior Fellow, Hewlett-Packard Laboratories


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 190 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; 1 edition (May 21, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262062410
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262062411
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,404,149 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nancy Forbes was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey in 1952. She earned a BA degree in Spanish from the University of Virginia, an MA in Spanish Literature from NYU, and later on, a BS and MA in Physics from Columbia University. She has served as a Contributing Editor for The Industrial Physicist of The American Institute of Physics and for IEEE's Computing in Science and Engineering. She has lived in Turin, Italy and in New York City and, for the last 23 years, in Fairfax, VA. She currently works for the US Department of Defense.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Good general overview of a new interdisciplinary field between biology and information science. Easy to read and understand for the uninitiated, which is more important than thoroughness or perhaps even technical accuracy. I liked it.
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7 of 14 people found the following review helpful By S. Zaslaw on August 15, 2006
Format: Paperback
Be warned. I only read the first tenth of "Imitation of Life: How Biology is Inspiring Computing" by Nancy Forbes. I claim no expertise and the following is strictly my opinion. What little I read, I mostly disliked.

I felt the author demonstrated little subject expertise. On page 5 she defines synapses as "the connection points between the dendrites and the axons." That had me running to Wikipedia. In my opinion, the discussion of neural logic here is confusing. I don't think anyone not already familiar with it will understand the model of a neural net she tries to present.

Consider this from a sentence on page 13: "Darwin's theory of natural selection -- a radical departure from currently accepted beliefs ...." Gosh, I though a large body of currently accepted beliefs originated with Darwin. This strikes me as typical of stylistic or logic problems in the writing. In general, I found the writing unenlightened, uninspired, verbose, clumsy, and pedantic.

I didn't read much of this book because I trusted it so little that reading became a chore. It reminded me of when I was a programmer reviewing a draft produced by a technical writer. There the minimal goal was to correct mistakes both detailed and conceptual. I don't have the expertise to do that for Ms. Forbes, or the patience. Doesn't MIT press have editors? Can't they find computer scientists to write a popularization?

I am not an expert in computer science or biology. Beyond the 15 pages of this book I read, the rest may be good. But from what little I did read, I imagined the author as someone who took a few undergraduate biology and computer science courses and decided to do an interdisciplinary senior thesis about biologic-inspired computing.
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2 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Miha Ahronovitz on November 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
No, it doesn't.

The author is a gifted technical analyst, working for Government Agencies. The text teaches what is the "bio-inspired" computation in high level research at universities and research agencies

As commercial software coverage, the mention of RSA In. for encription software, IBM and SAP DNA algorithms

One of the most stringent needs is to apply learning algorithms in Enterprise Computing. Huge data centers must have policies decided by humans, designed for autonomic self-healing.

The theory of change management claims new idea in business - enterprise software is nothing but a reflection of the business idea - is a seed that must grow naturally.

The use of bio-inspired , self-evolutionary software code would be not only a great fit, but a commercial success. The market for such software is every business that operates a data center and/or a compute grid.

As I work in creating enterprise software products, I bought the book with great expectations. This explains my probably biased disappontment with an otherwise a good book that opens the gates of new possibilities.

There is an Enterprise Biology Software Project ongoing [...] . It's mere existence and name illustrates the need described in this review.
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