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Book Reviews   |    
Turing: A Novel About Computation
Reviewed by Shahm Martini, M.D., M.P.H.
Psychiatric Services 2004; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.55.12.1450
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by Christos H. Papadimitriou; Cambridge, Masssachusetts, MIT Press, 2003, 284 pages, $24.95

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This book is a teaching course that uses the format of a novel as a vehicle for information transfer. The reader encounters a modern love story in which the characters are reviewing for each other the information they know on a particular subject—in this case, the evolution of the computer as we know it, and the fundamentals that shape it. The author is probably not expecting lay people to read his novel; if they did, they would have some difficulty understanding some portions that are highly technical even with his best efforts of simplification.

In some parts of the novel, there is a sense of reading about the author's life itself with unmistakable parallels and insinuations; in others, one marvels at the creativity and imagination of a University of California, Berkeley, professor of computer science. (Whoever said professors are boring!)

This novel will be an interesting read for anyone, including students and college graduates who may want concise historical information about the basics of the computer and Internet world. The paragraphs are written well to capture readers' interest in the story, and some are short enough to avoid monotonous "hyper-atmospheres."

I found it difficult to grasp the value this novel would provide to the busy, garden-variety psychiatrist, and what arguments I could make to entice someone to read it. With that said, I guess psychiatrists would probably be the first to appreciate the challenges that we will have to deal with once the technology is ripe enough to create intelligent, self-educating, and self-improving "bots" that can be logical and responsive to a normal human conversation. We will probably have to think hard and long to redefine logic—and the lack thereof. We would probably want to think about our own fear of being replaced with a super "bot psychiatrist" that always knows the right things to say, never fails to follow up on any piece of information, remembers every detail about the patient, and always adheres to algorithms of treatment. But I guess this is a discussion for another place and another article.

I could not escape from the thought that this novel is very similar to a classic soap opera: even if you miss several episodes, you can always catch up whenever you continue watching. This might be an unintended consequence of the informative nature of this novel as opposed to an event-oriented novel; on the other hand, soap operas rarely include philosophy and mythology, and they certainly never quote Eubulides' paradox: "This statement is false."

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and can safely say that it meets its objective of introducing its readers to its intended theme. The books subtitle, "A Novel About Computation," could be interpreted as "Not for the Faint of Heart in Information Technology."

Dr. Martini is affiliated with Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health in Yakima, Washington.




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