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Saturday, March 23, 2002
EGR: Complex Adaptive Hebephrenia

Valued Readers:

I've been thinking... after what came to be known as the first AI conference was held at Dartmouth in 1956, there were some old boys who regretted that they'd called it that. AI, that is. Artificial Intelligence. Texas tea. I'm going to try not to get lost in Beverly Hillbillies references here. Why? Because this regret is quite telling in such long-view retrospect. Now-the-story-can-be-told sorta thing. And the reason was? The reason was that these particular hillbillies had bitten off a bit more chaw than they could wrap their chops around. To wit: intelligence. What was it? Fact was, nobody knew. If John McCarthy hadn't saved the day by inventing LISP, thus distracting the infinitesimally small portion of the known universe that, at that time, gave a hang about such matters, this ignorance could have turned into a major embarrassment. Up from the ground come-a bublin' crude. Boys, we done hit us a gusher here, but we're not sure zactly what we're pumpin. Intuition most likely. But Daniel Dennett wouldn't make the scene until a whole lot later, so just keep yer pants on pardner and don't make me git ahead-a mah story.

Well, that was the bad news, but it's true what they say about ever cloud havin a silver linin. Goddamit, just drop the hick accent and tell the fucking thing, alright? OK, then. The good part was this. You take your press? What we call The Media today? Those folks have always envied The National Enquirer and The Weekly World News. So you give The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal half a chance to run a headline like "Engineers To Make Intelligent Computers," you know they're gonna run with it. Especially since very damn few of your average man-on-the-street-type people back in the fifties knew what an engineer was or had ever met one. Come to think of it, this widespread cultural ignorance probably played even more of a role than LISP in keeping faces from getting red about the "intelligence" gambit. Because, really, there were no such headlines like that just yet, though they were coming, sure as God made little green apples. You betcha.

It wouldn't be until the sixties that we began to hear much at all about engineers. What were they? Well, I'll tell ya. While the rest of us were engaged in socially useful pursuits like experimenting with illegal psychedelic drugs, engineers were the guys (they were all guys) who were still trying to explain to their Moms what a compiler actually did. Their focus was, you could say, a little narrow. And anything outside of science and math, well, basically forget it. Although Marvin Minsky did once read a comic book based on Beowulf that he later said had profoundly shaped his thinking about the Society of Mind. Or maybe it was the Enuma Elish, I forget.

At any rate, you can see how they got in over their heads pretty quick with this whole "artificial intelligence" thing. Sorta like George W. wading into statecraft. Texas tea. You smoke it. That's a fact. And hey, ever time that bell rings, somebody comes to the door. It's the dangdest thing!

But speaking of Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, it sure didn't look like the psychology of the day was gonna save the artificial intelligentsia's bacon at the cognitive Alamo. You couldn't even say that word back then. Cognitive, that is. Mental phenomena. Not unlest you wanted to permanently vitiate your future career. On accounta operant conditioning was what we out here on the ranch call a paradigm, pardner, and it hadn't quite shifted yet. Though it would, it would, just give it time, around 1962, when that Kuhn feller showed up in these parts right after James B. Conant of Harvard told him "I Wanna Hold Your Haaaand!" Hoo dogies, what a year that was.

[for more on this, see also Steve Fuller's Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times]

But never mind all that. What was really needed, ever one-a them AI dudes was figurin, was a little fuckin MEDIA ATTENTTION. OK, OK, I said I wasn't going to talk funny, didn't I. But they needed it bad. Real bad. Sure, Danny Bobrow was a nice guy and everything, but The Journal of Artificial Intelligence? I mean, come on. How was that ever going to kick off the longest running bull market the world had ever seen? And I quote.

Here was the problem: most of the population of the United States was stoned on acid and didn't care about anything but In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Twiggy, Maharishi Freakpuke and how Peter Max had decorated his own personal jet plane. Black people were newly obstreperous and carrying guns around Detroit and downtown Ithaca. Yoo-hoo! Odysseus be back, honey! Meanwhile, suburban Whites were like "Motherfucker! Who let these guys off the leash?" And so it was clearly time for a Sexual Revolution. Number nine... number nine... number nine...

Owing to time constraints, I'm skipping over certain parts.

But you get the idea, right? I mean, even if you were born into the Age of the Power Rangers, you know they didn't call em Boomers for nothing. These people were fucking insane. Another way of saying this is: a media opportunity waiting to happen. Any day now. Right after a decade of disco, which topped the whole thing off. Staying alive, but just barely. By the end of the seventies, the public -- what was left of it -- was pretty much ready for anything. It was as if the American mind, oxymorons aside, had been steeped in Adolf's Meat Tenderizer for roughly a quarter century, and was just waiting for someone to light the grill.

In 1979, Basic Books started bangin the chuck-wagon triangle for all it was worth. Yee-hah, come and get it! This chili had been cookin up for over two decades, and I mean to tell you, the recipe called for a little bit of EVERYTHING! The cover alone hinted of Through the Looking Glass, The Art of Fugue, mental models, metaphors, erector sets, and a shameless sop to the atemporal gilt-ridden macrame crowd. And, as if that weren't enough, a subtle-as-a-sledge-hammer allusion to the one cheap-ass "art print" every living college student had had imprinted onto his or her neocortex and limbic system with the help of powerful hallucinogens, The Doors, and black-light stroboscopes. I refer, of course, to that ever popular poster of Martian reptiles crawling over transgalactic carburetors and a packet of JOB rolling papers.

The title? If you haven't guessed it yet, you're just plain stupid. Which, not incidentally, was also the book's main theme. Yes, I'm talking about Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid - A METAPHORICAL FUGUE ON MINDS AND MACHINES, IN THE SPIRIT OF LEWIS CARROLL, AS TOLD TO WOLFGANG PAULI WHEN HE SYNCHRONISTICALLY CRASH- LANDED HIS ASTRAL BODY IN TIBET AND WAS RESCUED BY CARL JUNG AND A BAND OF TELEPATHIC YETIS WHO HAD INDEPENDENTLY ARRIVED AT THE CALCULUS AND SOLVED FERMAT'S LAST THEOREM, PROVING THAT I HAVE A MASTERS DEGREE AND YOU DON'T, YOU DUMB FUCK.

And inside the book, oh my! What a veritable garden of delights! What quaalude-befuddled disco denizen could fail to be charmed by fast-paced discussions of Peano arithmetic, first-order predicate logic, contrapuntal harmony, boustrophodonic writing, Zen Buddhism, anagrams, acrostics, cunning peptide sequences, and longwinded explanations of what a compiler actually does, all interspersed with Homeric heroes chatting up turtles, crabs and anteaters.

This was many people's first introduction to artificial intelligence. Sure, it was a little confusing at first, but you have to admit, a tad more focused than when Stanley Kubrick took a shot at explaining the discipline eleven years earlier. Try watching 2001 without the LSD. Here's a capsule review (caution: spoilers ahead). A bunch of monkeys kill a bunch of other monkeys after a singing slab of black basalt appears in their watering hole. Next thing you know, we've got space stations at LaGrange points, cosmic telephones and liquid carrots in a box. You eat them with a straw. People apparently like doing this, or perhaps they have simply become so dull through inbreeding that they no longer care. Kubrick doesn't tell us. Also, there's another, larger, black basalt thing on the moon now. Holy shit, it's LOUD when it goes off! Let's take a ride, someone says, so it's off to Jupiter. However, before arriving, the highly intelligent but deeply boring supercomputer who has been designed by IBM to maintain the temperature at a comfortable 68 degrees Fahrenheit, goes berserk after a fit of lip reading and kills everyone aboard except for Dave Bowman, an engineer. The computer then sings Daisy, Daisy, and dies. At this point, the original script called for a detailed explanation of what a compiler actually does, but focus-group screenings convinced Kubrick that no one would get it. Instead, he has Bowman shot through a chronosynclastic infidibulum into an ornate Victorian bedroom, where he ages quickly and dies. Then a giant fetus appears in the sky. Far out! The credits roll to Karen Carpenter singing We've Only Just Begun.

So, as confused as Hofstadter appears to become at times, it's only fair to remind ourselves at this distant remove that 2001 is to G.E.B. as the Code of Hamurabi is to a McDonald's menu.

Even at the time, the literary establishment -- perhaps flashing back on 2001 after the DMT wore off -- thought _Godel, Escher, Bach_ a model of clarity and a brilliant, uh... synthesis. The book won a Pulitzer and climbed the NY Times bestseller list. Everyone was glad that AI was finally here and we would all soon become Real Boys, even the girls. Unfortunately, all that had to wait for Kubrick's second, more upbeat attempt, which he almost got around to, but then he died. Spielberg then took over and made the movie, in which everyone dies.

---

Next time: Daniel "Gepetto" Dennett climbs aboard Hofstadter's shooting star with a soupcon of Darwin and a handful of metaphor he's cribbed from Dawkins. Just what the Doctor ordered for the epistemologically crippled laughingstock AI has nearly become. But what's this? Consciousness is explained in strict materialist terms using the "meme" -- a make-believe metric of cultural significance more elusive than the left-handed polka-dotted quark -- to ground the tour-de-force techno-macho neo-existentialist theory that will soon sweep through the academy like a dose of salts, making wimpy mysterian social scientists feel even more marginal and intellectually inadequate than they already did. Egged on by Wired, wanton starchildren, their remaining ontology shredded to feed the Department of Defense, begin brutally piercing themselves in support of the Stockholm Syndrome. Bloody singularitarian carnivals and nihilistic Luddite riots are reported from Helsinki to Tierra del Fuego. Can evolutionary psychology be far behind? Tune in next week to find out!

Fuck, I gotta get some sleep...

The Management


2:50 PM | link |

Wednesday, March 20, 2002
The Bactra Review
"To reach the suqs and madrassas of Cyberistan, and with them you, Dear Reader, the Review comes by caravan from Bactra. The caravans take off at right angles to the Silk Road, crossing the mountain wastes and deserts of the Real World (so-called), by yak, by camel, by foot: and sometimes a part of the manuscript gets left behind in a nameless caravanserai at the edge of the Tarim: and sometimes it comes down from the roof of the world illegible: and sometimes the caravan master decides to make war, or a pilgrimage, or a city: and sometimes more white matter is added to the salt flats, or the snows, or the sands, and it never arrives at all. Patience."

11:46 PM | link |

Hey, Have You Ever Read This One?
A little ditty I wrote for Booksense.com...

"I'm a book junky. Always have been. If I had a buck for every hour I've logged in a bookstore, I'd be driving a lot nicer car. If I had all the bucks I spent in those stores, I'd be living in a lot bigger house. But fast cars and real estate don't turn me on half as much as imagination and ideas. As I said, a book junky. And to support my habit, I've taken to writing the damn things. Not as blissful a career as I once imagined, but a bit less risky than stealing car stereos, color TVs and VCRs."


10:44 PM | link |

Tuesday, March 19, 2002
New Blogstickers from GWBush.com!



12:21 PM | link |


"RageBoy: Giving being fucking nuts a good name since 1985."
~D. Weinberger
28 October 2004

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