Thursday, November 29, 2012

Does AI engage in behavioralism? Chomsky says yes

Noam Chomsky, a long and persistent critic of artificial intelligence, says yes, or that it at least engages in the equivalent thereof, as related in this extended interview with the Atlantic.

If he is right, and I think he’s at least in the right ballpark, I think this arguably explains why AI, for all its self-touting, is the biggest research science and technology failure this side of peaceful fusion power. Indeed, progress on the two shares a remarkably similar arc.

Noam Chomsky/From The Atlantic
The interview is indeed worth a read. It’s in-depth, and as the Atlantic editor-reporter notes, it’s rare these days, because everybody wants to interview Chomsky on political topics, not scientific ones.

Beyond his “behaviorist” comments, he suggests AI researchers, and at least some people in fields such as his own cognitive science, are still doing research on mind and intelligence at what might be called the wrong level of abstraction. It brings to mind Dan Dennett’s comment (ironic at times, given Dennett) of “greedy reductionism.”

It also brings to mind Paul Davies’ book “The Eerie Silence,” which criticizes SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, for various blinders it may be wearing in its search.

Chomsky, in the interview, also veers at least a bit into his home turf of linguistics. As part of that, he doesn’t have a lot of good to say about Bayesian statistics.

He says there are better ways for us to try to understand the “noise” with which we are bombarded on a daily basis.

I have to agree from a different, folk-level point of view.

To me, Bayesian statistics seems like “the hip thing” for pop and semi-pop observers of human cultural sociology. All it needs is a new book by Malcolm Gladwell.

From there, he ties linguistics back to cognitive science. And, hits the nail on the head, in my opinion:
It's worth remembering that with regard to cognitive science, we're kind of pre-Galilean, just beginning to open up the subject.
He notes that, with the likes of Paracelsus, natural philosophy before Galileo, in the hands of the likes of Paracelsus, was quasi-experimental. It had certainly become more empirical than the philosophical speculation of the Greeks. But, things like the null hypothesis, or the idea of using any particular hypothesis to direct experimentation, weren’t fully there.

Chomsky goes on to question issues related to algorithms. Again, I broadly agree with him. In a more technical way, certainly, than me, he appears to question the issue of claiming that mental processes in general, and especially those that would give us what we would call an intelligent consciousness, can be reduced to, or framed in terms of, algorithms. Indeed, when asked about it, in relation to some particular research and mental modeling, he specifically rejects the need for algorithms.

It sounds like in both cognitive science and artificial intelligence, if not already, Chomsky could soon become about as controversial as he is on U.S. foreign policy.

But, don’t stop there. Chomsky, getting into his theories of language, and with a nod to Wittgenstein, argues that something analogous to language could be used as part of new attempts to understand bodily systems, such as, say, how the immune system works. It’s true that biology already talks about things such as “signaling,” but in the past, it’s seemed to use these words and phrases anthropomorphically, and Chomsky is saying, “take the next step.”

Anyway, I’m just scratching the surface of my analysis, both in terms of how much of the interview I’m analyzing and how much analysis I’m putting forth. Go read the full thing yourself.

Let me just add that he closes by saying something else I agree with, and that I read Steve Toulmin saying 15 years or so ago: Scientists still need philosophers of science challenging them, now perhaps more than ever.

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