Noam Chomsky Explains Where Artificial Intelligence Went Wrong

While pop­u­lar­ly known for his pierc­ing and relent­less cri­tiques of U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy and eco­nom­ic neolib­er­al­ism, Noam Chom­sky made his career as a researcher and pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics and cog­ni­tive sci­ence. In his 50 years at MIT he earned the appel­la­tion “the father of mod­ern lin­guis­tics” and—after over­turn­ing B.F. Skinner’s behav­ior­ist paradigm—founder of the “cog­ni­tive rev­o­lu­tion.” But these are labels the self-effac­ing Chom­sky rejects, in his char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly under­stat­ed way, as he rejects all tri­umphal­ist nar­ra­tives that seem to promise more than they deliv­er.

Such is the case with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence. The term, coined in 1956 by com­put­er sci­en­tist John McCarthy, once described the opti­mism with which the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty pur­sued the secrets of human cog­ni­tion in order to map those fea­tures onto machines. Opti­mism has turned to puz­zle­ment, ambiva­lence, or in Chomsky’s case out­right skep­ti­cism about the mod­els and method­olo­gies embraced by the field of AI.

Nev­er par­tic­u­lar­ly san­guine about the prospects of unlock­ing the “black box” of human cog­ni­tion through so-called “asso­ci­a­tion­ist” the­o­ries, Chom­sky has recent­ly become even more crit­i­cal of the sta­tis­ti­cal mod­els that have come to dom­i­nate so many of the sci­ences, though he is not with­out his crit­ics. At an MIT sym­po­sium in May of last year, Chom­sky expressed his doubts of a method­ol­o­gy Nobel-win­ning biol­o­gist Syd­ney Bren­ner has called “low input, high through­put, no out­put sci­ence.”

Recent­ly Yarden Katz, an MIT grad­u­ate stu­dent in Cog­ni­tive Sci­ences, sat down with Chom­sky to dis­cuss the prob­lems with AI as Chom­sky sees them. Katz’s com­plete inter­view appeared this month in The Atlantic. He also video­taped the inter­view and post­ed clips to his Youtube chan­nel. In the clip above, Katz asks Chom­sky about “for­got­ten method­olo­gies in arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence.” Chom­sky dis­cuss­es the shift toward prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion in engi­neer­ing and com­put­ing tech­nol­o­gy, which “direct­ed peo­ple away from the orig­i­nal ques­tions.” He also express­es the opin­ion that the orig­i­nal work was “way too opti­mistic” and assumed too much from the lit­tle data avail­able, and he describes how “throw­ing a sophis­ti­cat­ed machine” at the prob­lem leads to a “self-rein­forc­ing” def­i­n­i­tion of suc­cess that is at odds with sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery.

In the clip below, Chom­sky dis­cuss­es a new field in sys­tems biol­o­gy called “Con­nec­tomics,” an attempt to map the wiring of all the neu­rons in the brain—an endeav­or prick­ly biol­o­gist Syd­ney Bren­ner calls “a form of insan­i­ty.” Katz asks if the “wiring dia­gram” of the brain would pro­vide “the right lev­el of abstrac­tion” for under­stand­ing its work­ings.

The inter­view is worth read­ing, or watch­ing, in full, espe­cial­ly for stu­dents of neu­ro­science or psy­chol­o­gy. Chom­sky dis­cuss­es the work of his one­time col­league David Marr, whose posthu­mous­ly pub­lished book Vision has had an enor­mous influ­ence on the field of cog­ni­tive sci­ence. Chom­sky also prais­es the work of Randy Gal­lis­tel, who argues that devel­op­ments in cog­ni­tive and infor­ma­tion sci­ence will trans­form the field of neu­ro­science and over­turn the par­a­digms embraced by ear­ly researchers in AI. While this is an excit­ing time to be a cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist, it seems, per­haps, a dif­fi­cult time to be a pro­po­nent of Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, giv­en the com­plex­i­ties and chal­lenges the field has yet to meet suc­cess­ful­ly.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Spells Out the Pur­pose of Edu­ca­tion

Noam Chom­sky & Michel Fou­cault Debate Human Nature & Pow­er (1971)

Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent: Noam Chom­sky and the Media (1992)

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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  • Gary Salter says:

    The advances in the pow­er of the big super­com­put­ers, take for instance, the recent anounc­ment of IBM’s big project to sim­u­late real­ly big neur­al net­works of neu­rons is mak­ing progress in under­stand­ing what we can do in run­ning very accu­rate sim­u­la­tions of bil­lions of neu­rons.
    link to kurzweilai’s arti­cle:
    IBM sim­u­lates 530 bil­lon neu­rons, 100 tril­lion synaps­es on super­com­put­er

    The thing is, with sys­tems like IBM’s wat­son the use the old­er AI meth­ods is still a step in the right direc­tion because you want to expore all meth­ods of how to build an AI. Also, IBM is devel­op­ing AI neur­al net­work chips (with HP) that are neu­rons on a chip that are made of tran­sis­tors and can run faster than a com­put­er sim­u­la­tions. There are also exper­i­ments in grow­ing real neu­rons on a inter­grat­ed cir­cuit chip (grow­ing a brain from scratch) on a chip so that you could eas­i­ly inter­face to such neurons…with advanced biotech/nanotech we could cus­tom grow any type of cell, cure all dis­eases, make our cells younger..all it takes is the will to fund such projects with just a small frac­tion of the mon­ey wast­ed on the world mil­i­taries very bloat­ed bud­gets (lets steal the mon­ey from the wel­fare waste that is the worlds defense/war bud­gets and fund these very cool tech­nolo­gies that will ben­e­fit us more in the long run, then if you wnat, go back to fund­ing the lat­est H‑bomb/popular war!!)

  • Josh Jones says:

    Very cool stuff. Thanks, Gary. I’m with you. Let’s divert mil­i­tary spend­ing to r&d.

  • Christine Kroll says:

    I rec­om­mend this movie for the Open Cul­ture col­lec­tion because of its pre­sen­ta­tion of many argu­ments and prog­nos­ti­ca­tions of which are com­ing to fruition. Movie is free cour­tesy of at IMDb, Hybrid World: The Plan to Mod­i­fy and Con­trol the Human Race (2012).

    There’s a review here touch­ing on cur­rent events 2015

  • Johann Popper says:

    Noam Chom­sky’s think­ing and speech is mea­sur­ably slow­er now com­pared to 50 years ago. Why?

    Neu­ronal func­tion and synap­tic con­nec­tions are exact­ly the right place to look. Bren­ner is out of his mind if he thinks under­stand­ing neu­ro­mor­phic struc­ture is a waste of time. The prob­lem is the out­dat­ed egos involved in these projects are not very excep­tion­al intel­lects, and they don’t real­ly have a per­son­al inter­est in cur­ing neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­eases by repli­cat­ing neu­ro-func­tions as a path to under­stand­ing, and most even have per­son­al anti-mate­ri­al­ist onto­log­i­cal bias­es, such as Chom­sky’s well doc­u­ment­ed Carte­sian­ism, that utter­ly derail any and all attempts to make sense out of the data, from the roots. I don’t think it’s even pos­si­ble for a brain raised before the wide pro­lif­er­a­tion of per­son­al com­put­ers to have an instinct for rec­og­niz­ing req­ui­site pat­terns in the data. Or, in oth­er words, Carte­sian­ism is a clear dead end, and only a new hylo­mor­phism or some oth­er such ontol­ogy can allow biased intel­lects to get around com­mon cat­e­gor­i­cal con­fla­tions. To fig­ure out how any­thing works, look at when it does­n’t work first! Obvi­ous­ly! Yet, to my knowl­edge, almost none of the celebri­ty intel­lec­tu­als of cog­ni­tive sci­ence or arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence have spent even one month study­ing Schiz­o­phre­nia in their entire careers. This is real­ly the lim­it case of aca­d­e­m­ic absur­di­ty. Stag­na­tion is sim­ply the result of the gate­keep­ers of a field not work­ing the rel­e­vant prob­lems. I say, get out of the way. Non-establi­ah­ment intel­lec­tu­als needs to close in on these prob­lems from out­side of cur­rent acad­e­mia until its obsoles­ence becomes clear, exact­ly as the sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion dis­placed scholas­ti­cism.

  • Johann Popper says:

    *“not very excep­tion­al intel­lects, and they don’t real­ly have a per­son­al inter­est”

    I want to be clear­er in Eng­lish that I’m not say­ing a light like Noam Chom­sky is not excep­tion­al. That sounds awful and is not the case. I mean to say with­out a per­son­al inter­est, most work typ­i­cal­ly can­not be excep­tion­al. Where there is no life or death moti­va­tion to par­a­digm shift or to explore long­shot pat­terns, epochal dis­cov­er­ies or project instau­ra­tions sim­ply will not occur.

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