If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises

Category: Technology

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

…computers will not take over the world, they cannot replace us, because they are not designed, as we are, for ambiguity.

Imagine the predicament faced by a computer programmed to make language, not the interesting communication in sounds made by vervets or in symbols by brilliant chimpanzee prodigies, but real human talk. The grammar would not be too difficult, and there would be no problem in constructing a vocabulary of etymons, the original, pure, unambiguous words used to name real things. …

“The Corner of the Eye”

(so quaint!)


A. M. Turing – “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950)

The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted. I believe further that no useful purpose is served by concealing these beliefs. The popular view that scientists proceed inexorably from well-established fact to well-established fact, never being influenced by any unproved conjecture, is quite mistaken. Provided it is made clear which are proved facts and which are conjectures, no harm can result. Conjectures are of great importance since they suggest useful lines of research.

excerpt appears in The Mind’s I, ed. Daniel Dennett and Douglas R. Hofstadter, 1981

Douglas Hofstadter – Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979)

The first human to conceive of the immense computing potential of machinery was the Londoner Charles Babbage (1792-1871). A character who could almost have stepped out of the pages of the Pickwick Papers, Babbage was most famous during his lifetime for his vigorous campaign to rid London of “street nuisances”—organ grinders above all. These pests, loving to get his goat, would come and serenade him at any time of day or night, and he would furiously chase them down the street.

Douglas Adams – The Salmon of Doubt (2002)

Now that we’ve built computers, first we made them room-size, then desk-size and in briefcases and pockets, soon they’ll be as plentiful as dust—you can sprinkle computers all over the place. Gradually, the whole environment will become something far more responsive and smart, and we’ll be living in a way that’s very hard for people living on the planet just now to understand.

Douglas Adams – The Salmon of Doubt (2002)

It would be interesting to keep a running log of predictions and see if we can spot the absolute corkers when they are still just pert little buds. One such that I spotted recently was a statement made in February by a Mr. Wayne Leuck, vice-president of engineering at USWest, the American phone company. Arguing against the deployment of high-speed wireless data connections, he said, “Granted, you could use it in your car going sixty miles an hour, but I don’t think too many people are going to be doing that.” Just watch. That’s a statement that will come back to haunt him. Satellite navigation. Wireless Internet. As soon as we start mapping physical location back into shared information space, we will trigger yet another explosive growth in Internet applications.

At least—that’s what I predict.

(from 1999)

Douglas Hofstadter – Metamagical Themas (1985)

TIT FOR TAT fared spectacularly well in the ecological tournament, increasing its lead ever more. After 1,000 generations, not only was TIT FOR TAT ahead, but its rate of growth was greater than that of any other program. This is an almost unbelievable success story, all the more so because of the absurd simplicity of the “hero”. One amusing aspect of it is that TIT FOR TAT did not defeat a single one of its rivals in their encounters. This is not a quirk; it is in the nature of TIT FOR TAT. TIT FOR TAT simply cannot defeat anyone; the best it can achieve is a tie, and often it loses (though not by much).

(About Axelrod’s iterated prisoner’s dilemma tournaments, where the contestants were programmed strategies. The ecological tournament was one that repeatedly eliminated the worst-performing strategies from the pool, so that the ‘environment’ of strategies evolved until a winner came out on top. TfT simply begins by cooperating and subsequently does whatever its opponent did on the previous turn.)

Douglas Hofstadter – Metamagical Themas (1985)

Any intelligence has to have motivations. It’s simply not the case, whatever many people may think, that machines could think any more “objectively” than people do. Machines, when they look at a scene, will have to focus and filter that scene down into some preconceived categories, just as a person does. And that means seeing some things and not seeing others. It means giving more weight to some things than to others. This happens on every level of processing.

(spoken by a character in a dialogue, “Sandy,” who seems to best represent DRH’s opinion)

Douglas Hofstadter – Metamagical Themas (1985)

In his article, Turing raised nine plausible objections to his own Imitation Game approach to the question of mechanical thought, and answered them cogently one by one. The most serious one seems to be “Lady Lovelace’s objection”: that computers cannot originate anything, but can do only what we explicitly tell them to do. Turing’s answer to this—that one does not know what one has programmed a machine to do, except in the most superficial and general way—has a depth that eludes many good minds.

Douglas Hofstadter – Metamagical Themas (1985)

People tend to think that only extreme versions of things pose deep problems. That’s why few people see modeling the creativity of, say, the trite television character of Archie Bunker as a difficult task. It’s strange and disorienting to realize that if we could write a program that could compose Muzak or write trashy novels, we would be 99 percent of the way to mechanizing Mozart and Einstein. Even a program that could act like a mentally retarded person would be a huge advance. The commonest mental abilities—not the rarest ones—are still the central mystery.

Douglas Hofstadter – Metamagical Themas (1985)

…At this point, many critics of computers and artificial intelligence, eager to find something that “computers can’t do” (and never will be able to do) often jump too far: they jump to the conclusion that art and, more generally, creativity, are fundamentally uncomputerizable. This is hardly the implied conclusion! The implied conclusion is just this: that for computers to act human, we will have to wait until we have good computer models of such human things as perception, memory, mental categories, learning, and so on. We are a long way from that. But there is no reason to assume that those goals are in principle unattainable, even if they remain far off for a long time.