Imitation of life

Nancy Forbes

Publisher The MIT Press
ISBN 0-262-06241-0
RRP £16.95
Reviewed by Tony Stock FBCS
Score 6 out of 10

ImitLife The author prefaces this book by saying that she has long been fascinated by the 'overlap between biology and computer science – two disciplines that… may seem to have little commonality'.

She sets out to cover a broad canvas in a set of ten essays ranging from Artificial Neural Networks to Biology through the lens of Computer Science.

It is a challenge to fit this in around 150 pages resulting in her only touching on the concepts of each topic without being able to explore them in depth. Nevertheless there is a modest collection of references in the 'Notes' section which may well lead to more detailed sources.
The book does not set out any particular thesis on the relationships between the two branches of science: rather it describes ten selected theme areas with some loose links between a variety of topics.

Each topic essay provides some background to the subject with an account of the work of the major researchers in the field. This takes us as far back as Darwin in terms of genetics and von Neumann and Turing in computation, emphasising that both of the latter pioneers recognised the behaviour of automata in the natural world. But the main emphasis is on current developments in the biological inspiration of computer science.
The book is best described as a taster, and is none the worse for that. The broad picture is presented, and the reader will gain clues as to the outcomes of the research but will need to dig deeper elsewhere for a full understanding of some of the topics.

Among the more interesting topics for the reviewer were DNA computation, with the travelling salesman problem used as the exemplar, and computer immune systems with a holy grail target of 'creating a globalized computer immune system that can detect and eliminate a virus before it has spread'.
Further information: The MIT Press