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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