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Friday, June 06, 2008

What is Thought?

Steve Hsu over in physics has thoughts about thinking:

The Singularity, AI and IEEE, by Steve Hsu: An entire special issue of IEEE Spectrum has been devoted to the Singularity, with contributions from people like Vernor Vinge, Rodney Brooks, Gordon Moore and Douglas Hofstader. I'm confident it won't happen in my lifetime. I don't even think a machine will pass a strong version of the Turing test while I am around.

My favorite book on AI is Eric Baum's What is Thought? (Google books version). Baum ... notes that evolution has compressed a huge amount of information in the structure of our brains (and genes), a process that AI would have to somehow replicate. A very crude estimate of the amount of computational power used by nature in this process leads to a pessimistic prognosis for AI even if one is willing to extrapolate Moore's law well into the future.

This perspective seems quite obvious now that I have kids -- their rate of learning about the world is obviously enhanced by pre-evolved capabilities. They're not generalized learning engines -- they're optimized to do things like recognize patterns (e.g., faces), use specific concepts (e.g., integers), communicate using language, etc.

What is Thought? In What Is Thought? Eric Baum proposes a computational explanation of thought. Just as Erwin Schrodinger in his classic 1944 work What Is Life? argued ten years before the discovery of DNA that life must be explainable at a fundamental level by physics and chemistry, Baum contends that the present-day inability of computer science to explain thought and meaning is no reason to doubt there can be such an explanation. Baum argues that the complexity of mind is the outcome of evolution, which has built thought processes that act unlike the standard algorithms of computer science and that to understand the mind we need to understand these thought processes and the evolutionary process that produced them in computational terms.

Baum proposes that underlying mind is a complex but compact program that exploits the underlying structure of the world. He argues further that the mind is essentially programmed by DNA. We learn more rapidly than computer scientists have so far been able to explain because the DNA code has programmed the mind to deal only with meaningful possibilities. Thus the mind understands by exploiting semantics, or meaning, for the purposes of computation; constraints are built in so that although there are myriad possibilities, only a few make sense. Evolution discovered corresponding subroutines or shortcuts to speed up its processes and to construct creatures whose survival depends on making the right choice quickly. Baum argues that the structure and nature of thought, meaning, sensation, and consciousness therefore arise naturally from the evolution of programs that exploit the compact structure of the world.

    Posted by on Friday, June 6, 2008 at 12:33 AM in Science | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (32)


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