Unit 1 of M366, featuring some lovely paper wasps

Unit 1 of M366, featuring some lovely paper wasps

The course materials for M366: Natural and artificial intelligence arrived yesterday, so I’ve finally got my hands on my very first Level 3 textbooks! I’ve read through the first 3 sections of Unit 1, and at the moment I’ve got mixed feelings about the course…

I really enjoyed the introductory NetLogo activities, especially using the BehaviourSpace tool to run a simulation multiple times and output the results to a csv file. I’m really looking forward to making my own simulations, and I’ll be interested to see if we do any kind of statistical analysis of the output of our programs.

I also quite enjoyed the section about Enlightenment automata, particular Vaucanson’s Duck, a copper duck-shaped automaton that appeared to eat, digest and defecate. The course text says that the “digestion” was the result of a chemical plant inside the automaton, but rather disappointingly the Wikipedia page says that this wasn’t the case. I’m not sure who to believe!

So there have been some fun bits in Unit 1 already, but there have also been a few sections that have made me wonder if I’m on the right course. You know you’re not on a pure Computing course when your first Learning Objective is

1.1 describe a number of artificial creatures, in myth, legend, fiction and fact

The fiction-themed weirdness continues throughout the first couple of chapters, with bonkers Self-Assessment Questions like:

Look back at the brief quotation from Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Evitable Conflict’. What is your reaction to the vision of a world absolutely run by benevolent machines?

Probably the same as mine: suspicion and hostility. Whatever humanity’s shortcomings, and however great its ignorance, we would all prefer our fate to be in the hands of humans rather than machines.

I actually don’t think the prospect of being controlled by machines is that much worse than being controlled by humans (neither is great, but that’s society for you), and the assertion that we would all prefer humans to control us really rubs me up the wrong way.

So far, the unit seems to contain a lot of broad, sweeping statements like the one mentioned above, and lots of lengthy quotations from pre-20th century books, accompanied photographs and paintings of the people being quoted. I don’t really understand the point of these pictures; I can understand the inclusion of a picture of Vaucanson’s Duck, for instance, since it helps to explain what the thing actually was – but why would I want to see a painting of Descartes, or a photo of Turing? Seems like an odd waste of space.

So overall I’m a little worried that M366 is going to be too woolly and touchy-feely for my tastes, but I’m going to keep chugging along with it for the time being, and see whether it gets any better. I think I heard somewhere that people tend to drop out of M366 due to the programming aspect of the course, so hopefully that means that things are going to get a lot more technical!