Deep history and the robot future


I reviewed four new science books for The New York Times. They span millions of years, beginning with the birth of humanity and ending with a serious look at AI. 


Even as the number of hours in the day remains fixed, the number of decisions we must make grows. Organic versus non? Public versus private? Paper versus digital? Modern adults must navigate real and virtual worlds, and if they have children, they need to keep an eye on their increasingly complicated worlds as well. Indeed, there is now a well-established body of science showing that there are only so many decisions you can make in a day before all your choices become bad ones. Decision-making doesn’t just feel exhausting, it really drains us.

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Wake up!

In a minimally conscious state, people show a random, intermittent awareness of themselves and their environment. In the August 2 issue of Nature, scientists announced that for the first time they were able to improve the responses of such a patient. Electrical stimulation from electrodes planted deep inside the man's brain resulted in him showing more control of his limbs, eating with his mouth more often, and understanding more communication.  The Loom, Medical News Today.

When the lights go out

Consciousness in science is much discussed but little resolved, and as an abstract idea it's pretty slippery. How language and consciousness are fundamentally related is likewise unknown. Many of the ways we first learn language are unconscious. Without intending to, infants absorb the complicated rules that adult speakers abide by. On the other hand, anyone who has tried to learn a second language knows that words and syntax can require an all too conscious attention. Coma patients may be the most obvious control group for the rest of us. What happens to language, what happens to everything, when consciousness is suddenly obliterated? Liz Garbus's incredible HBO film Coma investigates what's at stake when people experience coma. The documentary, which previewed two weeks ago (and can still be seen on HBO), follows individuals who must pass through different shades of consciousness in order to return to normality, or at least to get as close as possible. The latest New Scientist also has an excellent feature on persistent vegetative state, the next stage a recovering coma patient may go through.