Sunday, March 23, 2008

This is NOT alive. It is NOT an animal. But is it like your toaster?

Recently in FARG's internal mailing lists we have discussed hyperbole in cognitive science; and all the fantastic claims that numerous cognitive scientists make. Every would-be Dr. Frankenstein out there seems to claim to have grasped the fundamental theory of the mind, and in next year we will finally have the glorious semantic web, we will be translating War and Peace into Hindu in 34 milliseconds, we will be having love and sex with robots, and, of course, we will be able to download our minds into a 16GB iPhone and finally achieve humanity’s long-sought after ideal of immortality.

Doug Hofstadter, of course, has long been dismissing these scenarios as nothing short of fantastic.

I think it’s safe to say that, in these sacred halls of CRCC, we are Monkeyboy-Darwinist-Gradualists who really disgust “excluded middle theories”: Either something understands language or it doesn’t. Either something has consciousness or it doesn’t. Either something is alive or it isn’t. Either something thinks or it doesn’t. Either something feels pain or it doesn’t.

I guess it’s safe to say that we believe in gradualism. The lack of gradualism and the jump from interesting ideas to “next year this will become a human being” goes deeply against my views. So my take on the whole issue of grand statements in Cognitive Science is that much more gradualism is needed. People seem to be having enormously simplistic views of the human mind.

As gradualists, we do, however, believe in the longer-term possibility of the theories being developed and cognitive mechanisms being advanced and machines becoming more and more human-like.

In fact, Harry has even stopped (but note that “stopping” is temporary, and is different from “quiting”, or “leaving”) his work on Bongard problems. Harry feels that our work will lead to dreadful military stuff. In fact, it is already happening, as he points out, and here is an eerie example. (Look at how this thing escapes the near certain fall in the ice.)

This “baby” is called the BigDog, and, yes, it is funded by DARPA. So there we have it, Harry: already happening. The military will get their toys, with or without us.

And this is gradualism at its best. Remember: this thing is not an animal. It is not alive.

But is it just as mechanic as a toaster?