My friend James Somers wrote an excellent profile for last week’s Atlantic:
“It depends on what you mean by artificial intelligence.” Douglas Hofstadter is in a grocery store in Bloomington, Indiana, picking out salad ingredients. “If somebody meant by artificial intelligence the attempt to understand the mind, or to create something human-like, they might say—maybe they wouldn’t go this far—but they might say this is some of the only good work that’s ever been done.”
Hofstadter strongly disagrees with the current mainstream approach to artificial intelligence. While AI leaders like Google use massive amounts of data and brute force computing to understand what you mean—nothing like a human’s thought process—Hofstadter argues that the real value AI is in building a machine that thinks like a person. This, he says, will teach us about ourselves.
He’s been working on this alternate vision of AI for decades, but he’s missing almost all measures of success—academic acclaim, industry adoption, intellectual import.
“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.
The piece reminded me of a recent trip to the Computing History Museum in Mountain View. The museum makes it clear that while we sometimes think evolutions in technology are inevitable, they’re very much the products of who works on them, with what support, when. History usually highlights the winners and forgets the losers. but there’s as much (if not more) to learn from the guys toiling away in their attics.