4 stars
Imagining the future so we can change it

How would we grieve if we could order custom android replicas that will take the place of our deceased loved ones? What should the justice system of a moon colony look like? If we built a machine that always tells truth apart from lies, could we really handle the truth?

In her podcast Flash Forward, Rose Eveleth has explored questions like these since Barack Obama was still president of the United States. The premise is that by thinking about futures—dystopian or romantic, ridiculous or sublime—we become better equipped to shape the world we may one day live in.

A typical Flash Forward episode combines storytelling, interviews, and analysis to stimulate the imagination residing in the “spicy meatball between your ears”. Now, Eveleth has translated the same concept into book form.

The book explores 12 different futures through full-color comics created by 14 contributors, followed by short essays written by Eveleth. The comics take up much of the 271 pages, making this a very quick read.

Each comic about a possible (or impossible) future is accompanied by a short essay that explores the topic further. (Credit: Rose Eveleth (text) / Ziyed Y. Ayoub (art). Fair use.)

It’s a book about the future, but it’s firmly grounded in the social and political discussions of the present. For example:

  • In “Welcome to Tomorrowville”, artist Ben Passmore and Eveleth wonder how the biased algorithms of a “smart” city might reinforce historical patterns of racism and marginalization.

  • In “Never Lay Me Down to Sleep”, Matt Lubchansky portrays a world in which we can fully conquer sleep with pills, and the inevitable exploitation of workers that follows.

  • In “Unreel”, Chris Jones and Zach Weinersmith tell the story of a man who controls the world through deepfakes—initially with honest motives.

As with an anthology, the art, stories, and topics chosen will surely resonate differently with each reader. Some stories felt a little too stuck in the present to give me much to mull over (the animal rights story stands out to me here); others were a bit predictable (sleep is indeed important). It’s hard to explore questions of morality without getting preachy, and the book does not always succeed at it.

But whether in book or podcast form, Flash Forward is an engaging approach to thinking about the future, and I recommend it. It also helped me discover the work of artists I would otherwise not have known about. I’d love to see another volume, featuring new artists and new futures to chew on.

5 stars
Learning to love the learning brain

Are we born with brains that are blank slates waiting only to be filled with experience? And if so, why is it so difficult to simulate that same experience in a computer? Why can a sophisticated AI be easily tricked into thinking that a cat is guacamole or that a Granny Smith apple is an iPod? How have human brains managed to adapt to the diversity of environments across the globe, from the Stone Age to the Space Age?

In How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine … for Now, French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene shows that the “blank slate” hypothesis does not withstand scrutiny. Our brains are equipped, from birth, with specialized neural circuits that shape a child’s intuitions about physics, arithmetic, geometry, and probability.

Dehaene cites a large body of research (including his own) that shows how young infants’ brains make sense of the world using this “core knowledge”. This research has forced a re-appraisal of older psychological models that have become popular wisdom:

Incidentally, these results overturn several tenets of a central theory of child development, that of the great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980). Piaget thought that young infants were not endowed with “object permanence”—the fact that objects continue to exist when they are no longer seen—until the end of the first year of life.

He also thought that the abstract concept of number was beyond children’s grasp for the first few years of life, and that they slowly learned it by progressively abstracting away from the more concrete measures of size, length, and density.

In reality, the opposite is true. Concepts of objects and numbers are fundamental features of our thoughts; they are part of the “core knowledge” with which we come into the world, and when combined, they enable us to formulate more complex thoughts. [p. 58]

Brains vs. Machines

Like a budding scientist, an infant’s brain forms predictions about the world and then adapts its wiring based on whether the predictions match reality. This neuroplasticity is powerful, but it is highest during early sensitive periods, and dependent on innate cognitive skills—a number sense, the ability to detect faces, to acquire languages, and so on.

Dehaene contrasts this with the current generation of artificial networks, which are closer to a “blank slate” on which the characteristics of a training dataset are gradually inscribed. As a result of this naive approach, AIs lack the human brain’s multifaceted reasoning skills—”for now”, as the book’s subtitle puts it.

Hinting at what tomorrow may bring, Dehaene cites examples of artificial neural networks modeled after human cognition. For instance, a 2008 algorithm for predicting the optimal structural representation of various datasets “rediscovered” human knowledge representations like the tree of life.

One may quibble with the author’s assertion that human brains learn “better” than machines, given that the latter have already excelled in specific domains. Just ask Go player Lee Sedol, who retired from professional play and called AI “an entity that cannot be defeated”.

A Theory of Learning

But the focus of the book are humans, not machines. The author’s goal is nothing less than a theory of learning that teachers, parents, and students can apply in practice. He suggests a model based on “four pillars of learning”: attention, active engagement, error feedback, and consolidation.

From these four pillars he develops concrete recommendations for educators. Many of them may match the instincts of progressive teachers: anxiety and stress prevent learning; students need to be engaged as individuals; sleep is essential. However, Dehaene is highly critical of unassisted discovery learning and the popular idea of learning styles.

Dehaene does not take a one-sided view in the “nature versus nurture” debate; instead, he explains the complex interplay between our biology and the world we inhabit. Biological evolution has placed constraints on us, but it has also allowed us to reason about the workings of our own brains, and to journey to other planets.

The Verdict

As a whole, I highly recommend Dehaene’s book. As befits the subject, he is a great (occasionally witty) teacher who uses straightforward explanations and illustrations in order to systematically advance the reader’s understanding of a complex subject.

While I found the author’s level of certitude—when he talks about animal intelligence or learning styles, for example—a bit off-putting at times, that too can be the mark of a teacher in love with their subject. It is a passion he successfully passes on to the reader.

5 stars
Behind one mask after another, the stories of troubled souls

If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers is a gift—literally. The indie game by Laura Hunt and Thomas Möhring is completely free, but you could easily mistake it for a commercial title. Its pixel art compares favorably both to classic point and click adventure games by LucasArts, and to modern ones like Kathy Rain. Möhring’s other credits include stunning concept art for the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, and each scene in the game feels like a small work of art in its own right.

The four titular travelers meet at a masquerade ball that takes place on a train in the late 1920s. Most of the story is told through flashbacks in which you experience a defining episode in the life of one of them. Behind their masks are troubled souls—as the player, can we only experience their stories, or change them? Like Italo Calvino’s book that inspired the game’s title, the game suggests that we interrogate it, not merely consume it.

This is not a lighthearted romp—think I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream, not Monkey Island. You’ll be confronted with themes like mental illness and homophobia, and with graphic depictions of violence. Hunt and Möhring invite us to put on a mask and imagine the lives of these characters, whose worlds come alive in the game’s art and music. For the soundtrack, the developers have drawn on freely available recordings of classical music and songs from the depicted era.

The protagonist of one of the stories walks through a dark hallway and knocks on a door. Light fills the hallway as a woman opens it.
Lighting effects and subtle animations make even small scenes, like this brief encounter in a hallway, highly memorable. (Credit: Laura Hunt and Thomas Möhring. Fair use.)

There are small puzzles you have to solve to advance in the story, but none are likely to stump you for very long. That’s in part because there’s no inventory—you occasionally have to pick up an item, but you then immediately use it elsewhere in the scene. It’s point and click reduced to its essence.

With these simple mechanics, the game achieves surprising depth. For example, in the first story, you choose whether to interpret a telegram you have received from a lover positively or negatively. Depending on your choice, many subsequent interactions and observations will be different. In another story, you have to pay attention to sounds and voices instead of hunting for pixels.

Hunt and Möhring have made it clear that they do not want to be paid for the game, but they have suggested that an artbook and soundtrack may become available for purchase at a later date. If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers, then, is like a book you can pick up at any time from the library called the Internet. If you’re in the mood for a story that shows a little more darkness than light, I strongly encourage you to check it out.

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