Monday, June 10, 2013

Valiant's Book Out: Probably Approximately Correct

Les Valiant has a new book out: 
Probably Approximately Correct: Nature's Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World

I was sent a free copy last week, but was delayed in reading it due to my avocational vocation.  (I was "talking with lawyers" a bunch.)  But I wanted to make sure to finish it over the weekend.  And now I'll recommend it all to you.

It would be, I think, somewhat inappropriate for me to attempt to review the book, but I'll aim to give some description of it which may encourage you to purchase it.  The book is aptly summarized by the following two sentences from it.

"The focus here will be the unified study of the mechanisms of evolution, learning, and intelligence using the methods of computer science."

"By the end of the book I hope to have persuaded the reader that when seeking to understand the fundamental character of life, learning algorithms are good place to start."  

Needless to say, the book is ambitious in scope, what one might expect from a Turing award winner, but in particular from Les.  If you have heard his Turing award lecture (available here), you can think of it as a preview of the book.  It is hard not to read the book as a challenge, to computer science in particular, but to the sciences more generally.  It is a call to arms, a vision, a plea, an agenda.

Because of this, I would recommend it highly to all computer scientists (in any area).

I would also recommend to it all scientists, so they could see this clearly laid out research vision from one of the leaders in computer science -- and, arguably, the one who is most interested in promoting the extension of the theory of computation to other sciences.  It might, I think, spur them to consider the relationship between computing and their own area of work, even if they are not directly working on evolution, learning, or intelligence.

It is slightly harder to recommend it to a general audience.  The book tackles fundamental questions of the connections between life and computation, making it a philosophical work certainly worthy of a large and general audience.  It raises some quite deep questions about the nature of human thought from what I think for most would be a novel vantage point.  But it does not shy away from the technical, and while, as promised, "The language of mathematics will be used, but only a little, and will be explained where used.", I imagine readers without a math/computer science background could get lost at times.  Still, other technical books (e.g., anything by Lisa Randall) find a large audience, so perhaps I underestimate the population at large. 

A final personal aside:  because I work with Les, when I read it, it came out in his voice.  I think the book very much sounds like Les -- it reads, to me, like him speaking -- but perhaps that's a trick of my own mind.  


Michele Filannino said...

In the basket!

Anonymous said...

Money question: when someone purchases the book via the amazon link on your web page, do you get a cut? If so, where does that cut come from? The publisher? Amazon? Les V.'s royalties?

(Just to be clear: I am honestly curious about the process -- I think it's totally reasonable for you to have a link off your blog post to the Amazon page.)

The answer will affect my behavior in the following way: if Les's royalties are in any way decreased, I will buy the book via other channels. If not, I may use the link on your web page.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Fair question. When I link to a book via Amazon, Amazon ends up giving a small % back to me. It comes from Amazon; as far as I know, Les is unaffected. (He gets whatever his contract says from the price Amazon pays the publisher.)

Will Sewell said...

I'm very tempted to buy this book! I just watched the Turing Award lecture and found the topic fascinating.

The way in which theoretical computer science seems to pervade so many feels on a very deep level makes it seem so profound to me. I wish the average person was schooled more in the basic concepts so that I could bring up these ideas at dinner tables which talk turns to evolution, cosmology, cognitive science etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

I bought it at a bookstore because the title seemed interesting, I love technical reading and thought it was a scientific novel-like book... I agreed with everything except the atheistic outlook that was a bit too overly aggressive; if you don't believe then keep it to yourself, especially in science.
Other than that it was an incredible read that I enjoyed, having learned more about Turing, algorithms, and computer science than ever before in my life. It was only afterward that it dawned on me that Probably Approximately Correct (PAC) is an actual model for machine learning... wow... he made it so simple to understand.