Reading this lovely and rather moving profile of Douglas Hofstadter I was especially taken by this passage on why artificial intelligence research has largely ignored Hofstadter’s innovative work and thought:

“The features that [these systems] are ultimately looking at are just shadows—they’re not even shadows—of what it is that they represent,” Ferrucci says. “We constantly underestimate—we did in the ’50s about AI, and we’re still doing it—what is really going on in the human brain.” 

The question that Hofstadter wants to ask Ferrucci, and everybody else in mainstream AI, is this: Then why don’t you come study it?

“I have mixed feelings about this,” Ferrucci told me when I put the question to him last year. “There’s a limited number of things you can do as an individual, and I think when you dedicate your life to something, you’ve got to ask yourself the question: To what end? And I think at some point I asked myself that question, and what it came out to was, I’m fascinated by how the human mind works, it would be fantastic to understand cognition, I love to read books on it, I love to get a grip on it”—he called Hofstadter’s work inspiring—“but where am I going to go with it? Really what I want to do is build computer systems that do something. And I don’t think the short path to that is theories of cognition.”

Peter Norvig, one of Google’s directors of research, echoes Ferrucci almost exactly. “I thought he was tackling a really hard problem,” he told me about Hofstadter’s work. “And I guess I wanted to do an easier problem.”

Here I think we see the limitations of what we might call the Maker Ethos in the STEM disciplines — the dominance of the T and the E over the S and the M — the preference, to put it in the starkest terms, for making over thinking.

An analogical development may be occurring in the digital humanities, as exemplified by Stephen Ramsay’s much-debated claim that “Personally, I think Digital Humanities is about building things. […] If you are not making anything, you are not…a digital humanist.” Now, I think Stephen Ramsay is a great model for digital humanities, and someone who has powerfully articulated a vision of “building as a way of knowing,” and a person who has worked hard to nuance and complicate that statement — but I think that frame of mind, when employed by someone less intelligent and generous than Ramsay, could be a recipe for a troubling anti-intellectualism — of the kind that has led to the complete marginalization of a thinker as lively and provocative and imaginative as Hofstadter.

All this to say: making is great. But so is thinking. And thinking is often both more difficult and, in the long run, more rewarding, for the thinker and for the rest of us.


  1. Hoftadter was a hero of mine when I was in high school. "Goedel, Escher, Bach" completely changed my life, got me interested in math, logic, computer science, programming, AI, philosophy. It is unimaginable what my life would have been differently without him. Also, I met him in high school after reading that book and he autographed a copy of "Metamagical Themas". But I have to say that by tackling a very hard problem, and largely in isolation, he has missed out. Also, his books became more and more self-indulgent. I don't know what to say, other than that a man's virtues may also be his vices. I think of people like Einstein who also worked in stubborn isolation in his later decades and tried to solve the really hard problems and failed. The pendulum swings between rationalism and empiricism as a source of fruitful ideas, whether in the short term or in the long term. History will be the judge, but regardless of the flaws of the statistical machine-learning approach to AI, you have to remember that back in the day, it was so derided in many academic circles that it set back many useful applications for decades. Hofstadter may be an outsider now, but once he was an insider. The pendulum swings.

  2. "A man's virtues may also be his vices" seems just right to me, Franklin. I didn't mention this in my post, but I think the article does a good job of showing how Hofstadter has exacerbated his own isolation. Which is a shame.

  3. Ah, thanks for the link to your review. It brought back memories, because I bought "Le Ton Beau" as soon as it came out, and remember being sorely disappointed, along with some other friends.

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