Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Brains, Minds and Machines

Former UofA student, Alborz, shared a link to a video recording of a recent MIT150 symposium on Brains, Minds and Machines on facebook. I watched the video yesterday (guess what, I need to mark 40 something finals, hehe:)).
I wrote a comment back to Alborz on facebook and then I thought, why not make this a blog post? So, here it goes, edited, expanded. Warning: Spoilers ahead and the summary will be biased. Anyhow..

The title of the panel was: "The Golden Age — A Look at the Original Roots of Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Science, and Neuroscience
" and the panelist were Emilio Bizzi, Sydney Brenner, Noam Chomsky, Marvin Minsky, Barbara H. Partee and Patrick H. Winston. The panel was moderated by Steven Pinker who started with a 20-30 minute introduction. Once done with this each of the panelist delivered a little speech and at the end there were like two questions asked by Pinker.

My heroes in the panel were Minsky and Winston. They rocked! Minsky almost fell asleep during his talk, but he was well aware of this and I loved him. He told a story about Asimov not wanting to come to his lab to see the real robots (he did not want to get disappointed) and about von Neumann who said that he does not know if Minsky's thesis could qualify as a thesis on mathematics (they were both at Princeton in the math department), but soon it will be. I really enjoyed this part. Winston acted a bit like a comedian. I did not mind this either. One thing that Minsky and Winston both said is that the mistakes happened when AI became successful and everyone from that on seemed to forget the science part of AI. But they did not say much about how we can get back on the track (except that we should try). Winston blamed the short-sightedness of funding agencies and who would disagree.

Chomsky made some interesting claims. He claimed that language is designed for thoughts and not for communication. This was a pretty interesting claim. He claimed other things supporting his idea about innate, universal grammars, but I did not know how much credit to give to those as I have many linguist friends who strongly disagree. Things became interesting when answering a question at the end, he dumped the whole of machine learning. He talked about "a novel scientific criterion" that was never heard of before referring to being able to predict "on unanalyzed data". He said that "of course" with enough data you will do better, but it seemed that he thinks that the evaluation criterion is already ridiculous. He also said that a little statistics does not hurt, but he still seems that the big deal is the engineering part. (He did not say with these words, but this is what I got from what he said).

Sydney Brenner (pioneer in genetics and molecular biology) was puzzled about why he was invited, though he had some good stories. I liked when he said that in 50 years people will not understand why everyone talked about consciousness 50 years ago.

Emilio Bizzi (a big shot in neuroscience, in particular in motor control) talked about modularity, "dimension reduction" and generalization, and he looked like a fine Italian gentleman, but I have to confess that I don't remember anything else, though this could have been because it was late.

Barbara H. Partee read a script. In the first 5 minutes or so she was mostly praising Chomsky. Then she started to talk about her own work, which was foundational in semantics. She talked about how semantics is the real thing. By semantics she means formal semantics (like in logics). While in general I am fond of this work, I am not sure if anything like this is going on in our brain and if sentences really do have a meaning in a formal sense. It seems to me that the fact that sentences can have a formal meaning is more likely an illusion, a post-hoc thought than the real thing. Ad it is unclear if bringing in formal logics is going to bring us anywhere. Unfortunately, there was no discussion of this at all. At one point she made the remark that "search engines do not use semantics", but then left us in vain about how we could do any better. Oh, well..

In summary, an impressive set of people, some nice stories, but little cutting edge science. Loads of romanticism about the 50s and 60s and no advice for the young generation. The title tells it all. It was still nice to see these people.

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