Friday, March 21, 2014

 

Douglas Hofstadter's Lonely Quest to Create Artificial Intelligence that is Truly Intelligent

Supercomputers have won Jeopardy (Watson) and defeated then-World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov (Deep Blue); answering complex trivia questions and outdueling a human genius in a purely intellectual game may seem like irrefutable demonstrations of intelligence but Douglas Hofstadter disagrees. The November 2013 issue of The Atlantic contains an article by James Somers titled The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think; Somers' piece is an engaging profile of Hofstadter that posits an intriguing hypothesis: "...Hofstadter has the kind of mind that tempts you to ask: What if the best ideas in artificial intelligence--'genuine artificial intelligence,' as Hofstadter now calls it, with apologies for the oxymoron--are yellowing in a drawer in Bloomington?"

Somers begins by noting that Hofstadter, whose book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize and is considered to be, in Somers' words, the "bible of artificial intelligence," is not impressed by Watson, Deep Blue or other highly publicized supercomputers; Hofstadter views Watson and Deep Blue as nothing more than very sophisticated calculators: they are not intelligent, nor do they provide any insight about the nature of intelligence.

Hofstadter wanted to ask: Why conquer a task if there's no insight to be had from the victory? "Okay," he says, "Deep Blue plays very good chess--so what? Does that tell you something about how we play chess? No. Does it tell you about how Kasparov envisions, understands a chessboard?" A brand of AI that didn't try to answer such questions--however impressive it might have been--was, in Hofstadter's mind, a diversion. He distanced himself from the field almost as soon as he became a part of it. "To me, as a fledgling AI person," he says, "it was self-evident that I did not want to get involved in that trickery. It was obvious: I don't want to be involved in passing off some fancy program's behavior for intelligence when I know that it has nothing to do with intelligence. And I don't know why more people aren't that way."

Dave Ferrucci, who led the IBM team that built Watson, explained his mindset to Somers:

"I have mixed feelings about this," Ferrucci told me when I put the question to him last year. "There's a limited number of things you can do as an individual, and I think when you dedicate your life to something, you've got to ask yourself the question: To what end? And I think at some point I asked myself that question, and what it came out to was, I'm fascinated by how the human mind works, it would be fantastic to understand cognition, I love to read books on it, I love to get a grip on it"--he called Hofstadter's work inspiring--"but where am I going to go with it? Really what I want to do is build computer systems that do something. And I don't think the short path to that is theories of cognition."

Not long after Hofstadter wrote GEB, he went his own way, avoiding contact with other artificial intelligence researchers: "There's no communication between me and these people," he told Somers. "None. Zero. I don't want to talk to colleagues that I find very, very intransigent and hard to convince of anything. You know, I call them colleagues, but they're almost not colleagues--we can't speak to each other.”

Hofstadter and the graduate students under his guidance conduct their own independent experiments. Somers describes the fruits of their labors as "almost ostentatiously impractical. Because they operate in tiny, seemingly childish 'microdomains.' Because there is no task they perform better than a human." Hofstadter is not trying to build a computer that can beat World Champion Magnus Carlsen at chess; he is trying to understand a much more fundamental question: how does Carlsen think when he plays chess and how can one program a machine to think that way, to truly display intelligence as opposed to brute force calculation?

Hofstadter lives a life of the mind and there is a wonderful purity to his vision: Life is short, so pursue the truth as you see it without worrying about what the mainstream scientific community thinks. That approach would not work for everyone but a genius who has tremendous confidence in his ideas can do wonderful things. Somers concludes:

Hofstadter never much wanted to fight, and the double-edged sword of his career, if there is one, is that he never really had to. He won the Pulitzer Prize when he was 35, and instantly became valuable property to his university. He was awarded tenure. He didn't have to submit articles to journals; he didn't have to have them reviewed, or reply to reviews. He had a publisher, Basic Books, that would underwrite anything he sent them.

Stuart Russell puts it bluntly. "Academia is not an environment where you just sit in your bath and have ideas and expect everyone to run around getting excited. It's possible that in 50 years' time we'll say, 'We really should have listened more to Doug Hofstadter.' But it's incumbent on every scientist to at least think about what is needed to get people to understand the ideas."

"Ars longa, vita brevis," Hofstadter likes to say. "I just figure that life is short. I work, I don't try to publicize. I don't try to fight."

There's an analogy he made for me once. Einstein, he said, had come up with the light-quantum hypothesis in 1905. But nobody accepted it until 1923. "Not a soul," Hofstadter says. "Einstein was completely alone in his belief in the existence of light as particles--for 18 years.

"That must have been very lonely."

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Friday, March 7, 2014

 

The Misunderstood Menachem Begin

"We were granted our right to exist by the God of our fathers, at the glimmer of the dawn of human civilization, nearly four thousand years ago. For that right, which has been sanctified in Jewish blood from generation to generation, we have paid a price unexampled in the annals of the nations."--Menachem Begin

In 1977, Time magazine dismissed newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin with this snide explanation of how to pronounce his name: "Begin, rhymes with Fagin." That one liner drips with contempt, if not outright antisemitism, but it is sadly typical of how the media treats Begin--and that is a shame, because Begin is the greatest Prime Minister in Israeli history, a Holocaust survivor, a freedom fighter and a peace-loving statesman who understood that peace-seeking democracies must be ever vigilant and ever strong when confronting tyrannical and despotic regimes.

In "Menachem Begin: His legacy a century after his birth," Daniel Gordis describes the gap between perception and reality regarding Begin:

...Begin is still disparaged by many of the very same Jews who see in the American revolution a cause for genuine pride.

Begin himself seemed to sense the irony, so he spoke time and again about the American revolution. In an article commemorating the 35th anniversary of Ze'ev Jabotinsky's death, he combined two passages from Thomas Jefferson's letters to fellow statesmen--one to James Madison and another to William Stephens Smith. "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical," Begin quoted Jefferson, adding the American revolutionary's sobering observation that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."


Gordis, whose book Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul will be published this month, explains the prominent role that David Ben-Gurion--Israel's first Prime Minister--had in smearing Begin's good name:

...Begin's reputation was also scarred by David Ben-Gurion's refusal to acknowledge his own participation in some of the events for which Begin is vilified. Ben-Gurion consistently denied having had anything to do with operations that did not go as planned, while Begin stood ready to take responsibility. The Hagana's David Shaltiel had approved the now infamous Deir Yassin operation, but when it went tragically and horribly awry and many innocent people died, Ben-Gurion painted Begin as a violent thug, pretending that his organization had had nothing to do with it. The Hagana was also intimately involved in the approval and planning of the King David bombing (for Ben-Gurion had come to see that Begin was right, that the British needed to be dislodged), but when civilians were killed because the British refused to heed the Irgun's warnings to leave the building, Ben-Gurion assailed Begin, pretending that he and his men had known nothing of the plan.

Ben-Gurion was one of the greatest Jewish leaders ever to have lived, and the Jewish state might well not have come to be were it not for him. But his greatness notwithstanding, he was unfair to Begin-- consistently and mercilessly.


Gordis is correct that Ben-Gurion played a pivotal role in Israel's creation but an honest reading of the historical record shows that it was more important to Ben-Gurion to win his political/ideological struggle with Begin than it was to save Jewish lives and create a Jewish State. The deplorable Altalena Affair, during which Ben-Gurion's forces opened fire on Begin's forces (including Begin himself) on the Altalena ship in the middle of Israel's War of Independence, illustrates the vast difference in character between Begin and Ben-Gurion; Ben-Gurion declared, "Blessed be the cannon that bombed that ship"--a cannon fired at Ben-Gurion's orders and that killed his fellow Jewish freedom fighters, albeit freedom fighters who had different political views than his--but Begin would not permit his forces to fight against fellow Jews. Begin prevented the outbreak of a civil war that could have destroyed the young Jewish State. Shmuel Katz later wrote that Ben-Gurion ordered the attack knowing full well that Begin was aboard the ship because Ben-Gurion wanted to kill Begin, who was a potential rival for leadership of the young state. Remarkably, the two men formed a rapprochement near the end of Ben-Gurion's life. One can question Begin's policies but one can never question that his motives were always pure and that his foremost concern was the safety and well being of the Jewish people--if only the same could be truthfully said of most of the other Israeli Prime Ministers!

In an article titled "Menachem Begin Will Live Again," Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveitchik described the "familial loyalty to the people of Israel" that Begin consistently displayed:

He was the first prime minister to truly bridge the social gap between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in the Jewish state, famously declaring yehudim anachnu, we are all Jews. It was he who first set in motion the return of the Ethiopian Jews to the land for which they had longed. It was he who left as his last will and testament that he be buried not on Mount Herzl, in the manner of some of his predecessors, but rather on the Mount of Olives, near the graves of Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani, one Ashkenazi and the other Sephardi, who had died in a British prison in each other's arms, and who together embodied for Begin the bond between all Jews that made the State of Israel possible after two thousand years of Exile. It was he who, unlike any other Israeli leader before him, made the case for the public Jewish character of Israel, drawing not on Jewish law, but on familial love. Honoring the values of Jewish generations past, he told the Knesset, was incumbent on all Israelis who believed in the ethical obligation declared at Sinai: "honor your father and mother." This commandment, he further suggested, was all the more potent when those parents were no longer among the living. Heim einam od, he said, our parents are here no longer. It is we, their children, who must honor the beliefs for which they bled and perished.

Gordis concludes:

Jewish sovereignty did not happen by chance, nor simply through negotiation. It came about through determination, grit, courage and blood. It was wrought not only by Ben-Gurion and those he invited to that memorable afternoon in Tel Aviv when he declared independence, but also, to paraphrase Moses, by "those standing there that day, and those not standing there that day." Despite the venomous animosity that divided them almost all their working lives, Ben-Gurion and Begin were both necessary elements of the creation of a Jewish state. Without either one, Israel might well not have come into being...

...Begin's life had, at its core, an unwavering constant, a guiding principle that shaped everything. It was a life of selfless devotion to his people. That devotion fashioned a life in which determination eradicated fear, hope overcame despondency, love overcame hate, and devotion to both Jews and human beings everywhere coexisted with ease and grace. It was a life of great loyalty--to the people into which he was born, to the woman he loved from the moment he met her, and to the state that he helped create.

That is a legacy infinitely greater than most are able to bequeath. In an era in which many Jews are increasingly dubious about the legitimacy of love for a specific people or devotion to its ancestral homeland, the life and commitments of Begin urge us to look again at what he did and what he stood for, and to imagine--if we dare--the glory of a Jewish people recommitted to the principles that shaped his very being.

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Monday, March 3, 2014

 

Struma's Fate Provides Chilling Reminder of What is at Stake for Israel

The sinking of the Struma is a vivid, terrifying reminder of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people when they did not have a national homeland and a powerful indicator of what could happen to the Jewish people if Iran succeeds in destroying Israel, the national homeland reestablished by the Jewish people in 1948.

Sarah Honig's February 23, 2012 Jerusalem Post article about the Struma's demise is almost unbearably sad. Here are some heart-wrenching excerpts:

...Against the enormity of the then-unfolding Holocaust, the loss at sea of 768 Jewish lives (103 of them babies and children) was at most blithely overlooked as a marginal annotation.

Moreover, although these Jews fled the Nazis, in the pedantic literal sense they weren't executed by Third Reich henchmen.

This atrocity was the coldblooded handiwork of Great Britain (committed while it combated the Germans but remarkably without compassion for their Jewish victims), supposedly neutral Turkey (whose so-called nonalignment didn't extend to outcast Jewish refugees), by the Arabs (who were openly and unreservedly Nazism's avid collaborators and who pressured London into denying endangered Jews asylum in the Jewish homeland) and, finally, by the Russians (who targeted the immobilized sardine can that carried Jews to whom nobody would allow a toehold on terra firma).

The entire world seemed united in signaling Jews how utterly unwanted they were anywhere.

Such apathy-cum-enmity hasn't disappeared.

Only its form and context had mutated but the essence is still ultra-relevant to the Jewish state.

We're still threatened with annihilation. Nonetheless, unmistakable harangues from Tehran notwithstanding, the international community worries about an Israeli preemptive strike--not a genocidal strike against Israel.


The Struma was a barely seaworthy ship packed with Jewish refugees who escaped Nazi-occupied lands only to discover that they were unwelcome anywhere, a situation that emboldened the Nazis to accelerate their plan to kill every Jews on the face of the Earth: if the Jews were considered undesirable by every country in the world, then why should the Nazis think twice about annihilating them? Honig describes how this tragedy unfolded in front of the uncaring eyes of the entire world:

The Struma wasn't struck suddenly. It was slowly tortured, accentuating with demonic deliberation how disposable Jews were, just when genocide's monstrous machinery was switched into high gear. This 75-day shipboard melodrama underscored the total helplessness and humiliation of Jews without power.

Struma passengers gathered in the Romanian port of Constanza on December 8, 1941. For four days, Romanian customs officials "examined" their belongings. In fact, they pilfered all they saw--clothing, underwear, jewelry and most important, food. 


The Struma was eventually destroyed by a torpedo blast from a Soviet submarine; everyone onboard perished except for 19 year old David Stoliar, who--in Honig's words--"was imprisoned by the Turks for six weeks for the crime of not drowning."

Honig concludes:

Oblivion is perhaps the greatest sin against the Struma but also against ourselves. If we forget the Struma, we forget why this country exists, why we struggle for its survival. We forget the justice of our cause.

Dimmed memory and self-destructive perverse morality hinder our ability to protect ourselves from the offspring and torchbearers of the very Arabs who doomed the Struma. They haven't amended their hostile agenda. We just don't care to be reminded.

The state the Jews created is threatened with destruction and its population with obliteration.

Yet there's negligible sympathy for Israel and even less practical support to avert tragedy. The Struma's story is seminal in understanding why the Holocaust was possible and why a second Holocaust cannot be ruled out. More than anything, the Struma powerfully illustrates what happens when Jews rely on others' goodwill.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be well advised to read Honig's article, draw the proper conclusions and act accordingly before Iran uses nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish State. Netanyahu can be remembered by history as the man who saved Israel or as the man who presided over Israel's destruction.

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