If you’ve just watched a movie about robots taking over the world, and you want to see how plausible such a possibility is, Are You a Machine? may be the perfect book to read. It’ll take about as much time as watching the movie, and insofar as it goes, it’s a neat little introduction to the major questions of the human mind that have caused the diverse fields of computer science, neuroscience, and philosophy to do something academic disciplines normally loathe: work together on something. After reading this book, you’ll come away with an introductory understanding of the basics of mind-brain interaction and construction of AI, several philosophical riddles about thinking and consciousness, and the power (and limits) of the computer in approximating the human intellect. The problem is that this understanding is quite meager.
Giving this book a star rating is a little troublesome; it may be just what the doctor ordered for those who only need a quick and dirty introduction (“invitation” is the alarmingly unambitious word used in the foreword) to the expansive and multifaceted question of consciousness. But for those who want more detail than the absolute basics, more debate between opposing thinkers, and a more sophisticated extrapolation of consequences from the theories and findings illuminated in this book, the fifteen brief chapters here (some as short as six scant pages) may leave you wanting.
The book is divided into roughly four parts: describing and building human consciousness, constructing artificial consciousness, the philosophy of mind and consciousness, and a critical view into the man vs. machine debate. The book gets better as it goes on: in the third part, Sternberg brings up the classic riddles of the homunculus, the Chinese room, human-facsimile “zombies,” and the hazy meanings of qualia, detailing the main opposing camps. This is a marked contrast from earlier in the book, where there’s little intra-chapter discussion of debates in the field, nor details of the mechanics of what Sternberg is describing. In an effort to not bog down his audience in the doldrums of biology, he relies too heavily on metaphorical descriptions. The result is a frustrating gloss over concepts that the curious reader may be expecting more from. The fourth part is by far the best, as Sternberg finally feels comfortable enough to go beyond describing things and start making arguments, which are informed, intelligent and intelligible. I only wish that he applied the same critical view and tone to the rest of the book.
Therein lies the largest problem with this book: all of what Sternberg is describing has already been said and published in general-audience anthologies. Unlike the vast bulk of academic writing, many of the articles and books written on the subject of consciousness are remarkably readable, compelling, and entertaining. Two such examples are How Homo Became Sapiens, an evolutionary account of the psychology of consciousness, and The Mind’s Eye, a charming anthology of essays about consciousness. Both of these books more fully address the issues raised in Are You a Machine?, and while they don’t collect the information as Sternberg has to specifically answer the title question, they provide a myriad of answers along the way. In a whole bookcase full of literature about consciousness, this slim volume has little reason to stand out.
I imagine this book will have the greatest appeal to younger readers from middle school to early college. Perhaps, as it was partially written while the author was in high school, they’ll find this first introduction to the study of consciousness relatable as well as informative. And to his credit, Sternberg does have an ample list of further readings and a bibliography where intrepid readers can continue their exploration. But he probably would have been better off just including that in the first place.