Monday, 5 April 2010

Counting Sheep

by Paul Martin
The puritans and dull, workaholic sleep-deniers of this world would have us believe that sleep squanders our precious time that should instead be spent in fruitful labour. This misguided perspective has a long and inglorious pedigree. Many annoying aphorisms, proverbs and sayings have been coined with the naked intention of making us feel guilty about sleeping. ‘Up, sluggards, and waste no life; in the grave will be sleeping enough’, roared Benjamin Franklin. ‘Love not sleep, lest thou come to poverty’, says the Bible. ‘A little more Sleep, and a little more Slumber, thus he wastes half his Days, and his Hours without Number’, preached Isaac Watts in his sanctimonious Divine Songs for Children.

Now this is a book that I won’t hesitate to call a “must read”. Sleep lovers like me will enjoy it, but for those who habitually dismiss sleep as a waste of time it can be a life-saver. I am not joking.

It may be a science book but the titles of the chapters and sections are sheer poetry: “Brother caffeine”, “Sister alcohol”, “Exercise is bunk, isn’t it?”, “Give sleep a chance”, “In praise of horizontalism” and so on. Peppered with numerous amusing literary quotes (sounds dumb, but it seems that I’ve never read that much Shakespeare in one book) and historical anecdotes, Counting Sheep will both keep you entertained and induce healthy, guilt-free sleep. Read it, and share it with your sleeping partner. Good night. Sweet dreams.

The lesson here from nature may be that intelligent machines should be explicitly designed to undergo the computer equivalent of sleep, in which information and memories are processed and consolidated off-line in ways that are not possible or efficient during the conventional ‘waking’ state, when the machine is being bombarded with new information about the outside world. Intelligent machines might even be able to enhance their creativity by spending an hour or two dreaming every night (though goodness knows what the computer equivalent of a nocturnal erection would entail.)

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