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Verbose robots, and why some people love Bach: Books in Brief

Vision Impairment

Michael Crossland UCL Press (2024)

On a typical day in his clinic, London-based optometrist Michael Crossland assesses both young children and centenarians with low vision. Severe vision impairment affects 350 million people around the world, many of whom in poorer countries lack access to any eye care. His fascinating, sometimes moving, account — mixing ophthalmology with the stories of his patients and many others — reveals that life with vision impairment can be “just as rich and rewarding as life with 20/20 vision”.

Literary Theory for Robots

Dennis Yi Tenen W. W. Norton (2024)

Artificial intelligence (AI) is rooted in the humanities, argues Dennis Yi Tenen, a comparative-literature professor and former Microsoft engineer. Chatbots are trained using electronic versions of tools such as “dictionaries, style guides, schemas, story plotters [and] thesauruses” that were historically part of the collective activity of writing. Indeed, a statistical model called the Markov chain, crucial to AI, arose from an analysis of vowel distribution in poems by Alexander Pushkin. Tenen’s cogitation is a witty, if challenging, read.

The Last of Its Kind

Gísli Pálsson Princeton Univ. Press (2024)

Living species could never become extinct, thought naturalist Carl Linnaeus. Charles Darwin disagreed, saying extinction was a natural process. Then ornithologists John Wolley and Alfred Newton began studying great auks, flightless birds living on remote islands in the North Atlantic Ocean. They visited Iceland in 1858 to see great auks, but instead met locals who described killing off the birds — revealing how humans could extinguish a species. Anthropologist Gísli Pálsson tells the engaging story of this “key intellectual leap”.

All Mapped Out

Mike Duggan Reaktion (2024)

Cultural geographer Mike Duggan works in partnership with the UK national mapping agency, Ordnance Survey, to study everyday digital-mapping practices. Important as it is, digital mapping is not superseding analogue maps, he observes in his global history of cartography, which begins with Palaeolithic carvings. Sales of Ordnance Survey paper maps are rising, perhaps because of their convenience. “Although digital maps are improving constantly in accuracy and design, they do not always live up to those promises.”

The Neuroscience of Bach’s Music

Eric Altschuler Academic (2024)

Physician and neuroscientist Eric Altschuler regards J. S. Bach as the greatest composer ever, as do many others. Altschuler’s pioneering study — illustrated with numerous musical examples — aims to show how Bach-centred neuroscience “can help us better appreciate perceptual and cognitive affects in Bach” and create better performances of the composer’s work. It also teaches us how music perception is not localized to one region of the brain but occurs throughout it, and varies from person to person.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

Fonte original Nature.com

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