Saturday, June 17, 2017

Lipson, Hod (2016): Driverless - Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead

What is it about?

This book is about autonomous cars - their past, present and future.

However, the book not only discusses autonomous cars themselves, but to quite a notable degree covers the underlying technologies as well. Perhaps the most notable such examples are artificial intelligence and especially "deep learning", machine vision (with optical, laser and radio technology) and computer and software technology in general.

In addition, the authors very welcomingly discuss also the derivative social effects which would result from widespread adoption of autonomous cars (e.g. loss of certain jobs, changes in urban landscape, economies of urban, sub-urban and rural areas etc. Furthermore, the book does a good job in discussing some of the most obvious ethical questions such as how to value human life, because such a value is needed when an autonomous vehicle is in an emergency situation forced to choose between two or more courses of action all of which involve fatalities and/or damage to property.

Was it good?

The book is very interesting and reads quite well. At places, the authors get close to that stylistic line which irritates me in contemporary non-fiction books (overly colourful language, hyperbolic analogues etc.), but don't get there.

I especially appreciated the extended discussion on underlying or enabling technologies (e.g. how a neural network works, what affects its performance and how this have developed over the past decades, and how neural networks can be and are being employed in machine vision/sensing such as in autonomous vehicles), as this gives one a substantially deeper understanding about the current state and foreseeable future of autonomous cars.

Moreover, I equally liked the discussion concerning societal and ethical issues. This, actually, sets this book apart from may other contemporary non-fiction books especially on technical subjects, because the authors explicitly admit that there currently seems to be to much simplistic hype around autonomous vehicles.

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away for me certainly was an increased understanding about the technical complexity of making autonomous cars reliable and eventually "mainstream". For example, detecting a human progressing slowly while carrying a large dense object as human is very, very difficult to pull off with machine sensing. Yet, this must be routine with 99.9999% accuracy if autonomous vehicles are to become ubiquitous.

Who should read the book?

The book certainly requires some interest in the subject and an engineering mindset (neural networks, laser distance detection...), but anyone at all wondering about how advanced autonomous cars currently are and how (or whether) they become commonplace, should certainly read the book.

The book on  Driverless

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Line-In Publishing: Sociology - Exploring Human Society

What is it about?

This is a basic text on sociology, like a basic undergraduate textbook on "Sociology 101" course.

Hence, it starts with describing what sociology is (as an academic and intellectual discipline) and how sociological research is conducted, and then proceeds to discuss key themes in sociology such as the society, organizations and organizational behavior, the family, crime etc.

As a very notable feature, all the major topics are discussed through three sociological lenses: functionalist theory, conflict theory and symbolic interaction,

Was it good?

The book is extremely accessible - it discusses the topics in a very down-to-earth way and with no particular hurry or an use of highly specialized vocabulary. At times, this may convey a slowly progressing impression, but every once in a while I found myself really contemplating quite basic issues such as my conception of the family, or how very basic processes operate in my workplace. Thus, the very basic nature of the book actually turned out to be a benefit for me.

Moreover, the choice to run all the key themes through the three lenses - functionalist theory, conflict theory and symbolic interaction is a very good choice: in this manner all the themes appear in different light depending on which of the lenses one uses to look at issues.

The main take-away for me?

My take-away perhaps is at a meta level. Namely, that sociologists have accumulated quite a bit of well-reasoned and researched knowledge which is fully applicable but undervalued in many walks of life. For example, I would claim that at most workplaces people are perplexed by issues (say, for example, difficulty of making changes in work processes) which would be crystal clear and obvious for a sociologist - and even for a sociologist living half a century ago.

Who should read the book?

I would recommend the book for absolutely everyone. Especially if one has not studied sociology before, this book is a stellar place to start.

The book on Sociology