Sunday, May 09, 2004

The Cambridge Quintet...

In this book, which I just finished reading and had a fantastic time doing it, John Casti, who in my opinion may well turn out to be one of the foremost science writers of all time, weaves a tale about an extraordinary meeting...that never took place, but could well have. Five outstanding intellectuals-C.P.Snow: Physicist, Erwin Schrodinger: Physicist, J B S Haldane: Biologist, Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosopher and Alan Turing: Mathematician-meet for dinner at Cambridge University's Christ College in Snow's rooms, at his request, for profound discussion about a topic that could change the future of humanity forever. The year: 1949. The topic: Artificial Intelligence. Can machines think? During the intense discussion that follows, we get to read a tour de force presented by Casti, just like it would be, had such a meeting actually taken place. As these great minds argue back and forth about this central question, we are transformed to post war England, and the beginnings of modern day computer science. Almost everything they talk about had, or will have far reaching consequences. Some of the idea Turing talks about, such as algorithms, are so commonplace in the modern world, that we take them absolutely for granted. Other related questions, such as the origin and structure of language and its relation to computational processes, are still profound unsolved questions. Casti makes everything sound extremely realistic, and does a great job at it. His choice of characters for this debate is superb, and one which cannot easily be imagined, but which in hindsight is perfect. His portraying of their personalities is impeccable, and represents the diverse backgrounds which each of them brings to the dinner table. His language is brilliant,and so is the humour. The discussion essentially pits Turing and Wittgenstein against each other. Each of these men was a remarkable human being. I read an acclaimed biography of Turing, and there is no doubt in my mind that, if he had lived longer (he died at the age of 41) he may well have become the greatest mathematician of the century. On the other hand, Wittgenstein was another bizarre character who inherited a generous amount of money, fought in World War 1 (where, reputedly, he developed his famous theory of language and logic with bullets whizzing all around him...surely not an ordinary person!), then gave up all his inheritance, and for a time took up totally unlikely occupations. He worked, in turn, as an elementary school teacher, a gardner's assistant (!), and a hospital attendant. This strange man is generally regarded as being the most influential philosopher of the century. Anyway, in the book, the delectable details of which I leave for you to read, the two sides of the discussion are simple, if you consider their gist. Turing claims that it is very much possible to build a machine, which would be indistinguishable in its operations, from a human being. Wittgenstein opposes this view because he believes that no matter how sophispticated a SYNTAX a machine would use, it would be unable to actually take part in SEMANTICS which is central to human intelligence. Can a machine actually UNDERSTAND its own concoctions, no matter how complicated they are? Key to this discussion is the question of language itself, as that is the medium of communication and thinking for humans. Language in turn also leads us to questions about culture, which can only arise from a shared way of life, as Wittgenstin contends. Can we think of constructing a robot, or better, a family of robots, capable of demonstrating a cultural evolution? These are some of the fascinating questions that the participants consider.
What about the conclusion? There can be none for such a complex problem. But the knowledge which one gains in such enterprises is priceless. On my part, however, I see a central problem, which I am sure is widely recognised. We consider all these questions of language and intelligence from the point of view of human beings. How can we even know the culture which say, a lion participates in. Investigations into this sphere of knowledge will always be limited by our own bias as observers, as well as manipulators. At least sofar as I see it, there can be no way out of this. However, I do think, that it is extremely important to have these debates about AI, as I realised that they are related to a huge variety of other topics in contemporary philosophy, biology, and many other 'ogys' in general! It will be worthwhile having such discussions and let us leave it to people like Casti to enlighten us with them, hypothetical as they may well be. Forget about Bill Gates, George Bush, and Saddam Hussein (although they DO make a difference!). Gentlemen such as these are the real movers and shakers of the world, although few may hear of them ,for they toil as little known geniuses. We should be indebted to writers like John Casti, for telling us their story. Thank you, John! ...And as I say this, i start my perusal of the next Casti book which I checked out called 'Godel: A life in logic'.
Ladies and Gentlemen, what do you think about the conundrum of AI?


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