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.