Book Review

Apprentices of Wonder: Inside the Neural Network Revolution

by William F. Allman

Reviewed by Barry Kort

Apprentices of Wonder is written for the educated lay audience. It is not a textbook on neural networks from a practitioner in the field. Rather it is the engaging story of people and their projects, written in the style of Pamela McCorduck (Machines Who Think), Tracy Kidder (Soul of a New Machine), Grant Fjermedal (The Tomorrow Makers) and James Gleick (Chaos: Making a New Science). William F. Allman is Senior Editor at U.S. News and World Report and an award-winning science writer. The book jacket captures the essential character of Allman's engaging style:

Apprentices of Wonder takes you into the exciting new science of the twenty-first century: the study of a revolutionary kind of artificial intelligence, called neural networks, that mimics the complex activity of the human brain. Here is the story of a scientific revolution–the drama of the men and women whose work in brain/mind science rivals in scope and impact the emergence of relativity theory and quantum mechanics in physics.

Science writer William F. Allman take us behind the scenes and into the labs of the world-renowned pioneers of the neural network revolution, showing them in action as they reinvent the mind, from its electronic rumblings to its metaphysical rantings. We watch neuroscientist Gary Lynch map the neural circuits for smell in rats; trace the steps by which Jay McClelland, David Rumelhart, Geoffrey Hinton, and others created thinking machines that learn from experience; witness Carver Mead test the first silicon retina and listen as Terry Sejnowski's machine, NETalk, learns to read aloud. Drawing from a wide range of research and researchers–from whiz kids to Nobel laureates–this bold new band of psychologists, physicists, computer scientists, and philosophers is exploding traditional thinking about the mind and forging a new understanding of the underlying connection between mind and machine that may one day solve the mystery that has challenged man since his first self-conscious thought: What is consciousness and where does it come from?

Using puzzles, problems, and brainteasers, Allman illustrates the power and limitations of our brain's remarkable cognitive abilities and explains with startling clarity the highly complex technologies–and wondrous architecture–of the mind and the dazzling mind-bending ideas of some of its most brilliant apprentices. With the verve and human drama of Chaos and The Soul of a New Machine, Apprentices of Wonder takes us on a fascinating journey to the farthest frontiers of the mind and the revolution now taking place in our thinking–about thinking.

The hyperbole of the book jacket notwithstanding, I did indeed find Apprentices of Wonder to be an appealing, informative, entertaining and readable excursion into neural networks. The story reaches back to the analysis of perceptrons by Minsky and Papert, and their finding that a single-stage network could not implement the exclusive or (XOR) function or other nonlinear transformations. Their negative finding discouraged other researchers who were then experimenting with multi-layer neural networks. The resurgence came primarily from the work of John Hopfield and David Tank whose positive results and penetrating analysis stimulated fresh interest.

Allman engages the reader with a sprinkling of instructive brain teasers, designed to illustrate the diversity of cognitive skills from language parsing to syllogistic logic to spatial reasoning to combinatorial logic to reasoning by analogy. He keeps the reader alert with self-referential sentences like "Wee con undrestin wrds efen wen theh ar missspld. Or fill in the blanks when l t rs are missing."

Of all the neural network research, Allman's favorite appears to be Terry Sejnowski's NETalk, that modest 309-neuron network which learned to read aloud elementary school text in a day's worth of training. Sejnowski's NETalk may not be as profound as hippocampal research (mentioned briefly) or the reverse engineering of the vestibular occular reflex (barely hinted at), but it does make a good story. Had I not been attracted by the gee whiz machines, I might have missed out on the neuroscientist's exploration of the wetware.

Lest I mislead the reader with my personal bias, here is the Table of Contents of Apprentices of Wonder:


      The New Connectionist Revolution
      The Symbolic Mind
      Rethinking How We Think

      The Mechanics of Thought
      Putting the Brain to Work
      Bringing the Brain Back In
      Our Irrational Mind
      The Insight Machine

      Brain Science versus Mind Science
      The World Within
      A New Engine of Thought
      The Brain-Mind Split
      A Mind in a Machine
      The Changing of the Guard
      A New Concept of Mind

      The Anatomy of Memory
      Probing the Mind's Machinery
      Wiring the Brain
      Making Memories (or What Memories are Made Of)
      A Brain Circuit for Smell
      The Evolution of Mind

      The Science of Complexity
      The Mathematics of Mind
      A Wrench in the Gears of the Universe
      Miniature Universes or Miniature Worlds
      Finding the Best Solution Among Many
      The Creative Computer

      Neural Networks Learn to Learn
      The Neural Net Revolutionaries
      The Interactive Mind
      Neural Nets' Troubled Past
      A Simple Neural Net
      The Keepers of the Flame
      The Building of the Neural Net Revolution
      The Power of Multiple Layers
      Making Hidden Connections

      Putting Neural Nets to Work
      The Neural Net Industry
      The Matchmaker
      Neural Nets in Space
      Computing with Light
      Engineering the Brain
      Computers that Listen
      The New Engineering

      Winning the Hearts of Mind Researchers
      The Empire Strikes Back
      The Language of Thought
      Theoretical Language versus Human Language
      The West Coast View
      The Iconoclast Linguist
      Clues from Color Perception
      Fundamental Categories
      Language and Connectionism
      The Culture Connection

      NETalk Learns to Read Aloud
      Studying the Brain from Both Sides
      Inside the Neural Net
      Hidden Representations
      The Ghost in the Machine


I heartily recommend this book, especially for those neural network specialists who despair of explaining their work to nontechnical family and friends. I know of no other source which makes the field of neural networks so readily accessible to the public readership.

            Barry Kort

This book review originally appeared on UseNet and was reprinted in Artificial Intelligence, Volume 53, 1992.