The Emperor's New Mind Book Summary - The Emperor's New Mind Book explained in key points
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The Emperor's New Mind summary

Roger Penrose

Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics

4.6 (224 ratings)
26 mins

Brief summary

"The Emperor's New Mind" by Roger Penrose challenges the idea that consciousness is no more than a computer program, and argues that human cognition is rooted in quantum mechanics. The book discusses rational thinking, artificial intelligence, and the mysteries of the human mind.

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    The Emperor's New Mind
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    Whether computers can have minds is a question of whether the human mind is computable.

    Back in 1950, famous British computer scientist Alan Turing proposed a test to measure computer intelligence. Put simply, a machine passes the test if a human interacting with it can’t tell that he’s interacting with a machine. For example, a human interrogator could be chatting with a digital computer over text, trying to determine whether he’s talking to a computer or another human.

    Some computers can indeed imitate human conversation well enough to pass such a test. But does that mean that they’ve learned to “think” in the same way we do? 

    Here’s the key message: Whether computers can have minds is a question of whether the human mind is computable. 

    To proponents of a viewpoint known as strong AI, a computer behaving in a human, intelligent way is evidence that it possesses real, human intelligence. According to this view, even a thermostat possesses some kind of “mind” – albeit a very simple one. 

    The author, however, thinks that our minds are fundamentally non-computable. To understand the depth of his argument, we’ll have to travel to the edge of the universe and back again.

    But first, let’s have a look at what “computability” actually means. If a problem is computable, it means that it can be solved through an effective computational program, using an algorithm. An algorithm is a sequence of step-by-step instructions that tell a computer what to do. 

    Pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing was the first to devise a hypothetical model for running such algorithms. He imagined a scanner-like device running over an infinite strip of tape with squares inscribed with 0’s and 1’s. The device’s “state” changes with each number it scans. And the device also has the power to change the numbers on the tape. Which action it takes – whether it moves left or right, deletes or changes a number – depends on the initial number on the square as well as the state of the device. Turing showed that even complex algorithmic problems could be solved by this machine. 

    Even though the Turing machine is a mathematical idealization, it gives us a useful measure of computability. Any operation that can be run by a Turing machine is algorithmic. In fact, all of our modern computers are essentially Turing machines. 

    But even Turing recognized that some problems can’t be solved algorithmically. As it turns out, even some mathematical operations are not actually computable. In the next blink, we’ll try to understand why.

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    What is The Emperor's New Mind about?

    The Emperor’s New Mind (1989) is a timeless argument against the computability of the human mind. Taking you on a fascinating journey through math, computer science, philosophy, and physics, famous mathematician Roger Penrose explains what makes the human mind so special – and what quantum mechanics has to do with consciousness.

    Who should read The Emperor's New Mind?

    • Math freaks and science geeks 
    • Hobby psychologists and armchair philosophers
    • Anyone concerned about a robot uprising

    About the Author

    Sir Roger Penrose is an acclaimed British mathematical physicist and philosopher of science. In 2020, Penrose shared one half of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on black holes and general relativity theory. He has written several popular physics books, most recently Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe (2016).

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