The Myth of Thinking Machines

In 1961 Columbia University Press published a bitter book by Mortimer Taube, librarian and pioneer of information retrieval systems development: Computers and Common Sense, the Myth of Thinking Machines. It is supposed to be the first anti AI text, but as my cursory research shows it never received much attention — probably due to criticizing MIT, RAND, Harvard University and Rockefeller Foundation for spending millions on inventing chess playing machines.

Taube claims that proper man-machine relations are augmentation and complementation, not simulation. At that time a distinction between simulation of the brain’s structure and simulation of its functions was already made by Turing and Minsky, but, Taube writes, there is no discussion or attempt to specify the functions which are to be simulated.

It certainly does not make much sense to say that the function of the brain is to play chess or translate languages and that chess playing machines and translation machines are thereby successful simulations of the human brain. (p. 74)

In the last paragraph of the book he calls those who promise that within ten years “computers will dethrone the current world chess champion” to be latter-day soothsayers.

Not 10, but 35 years later computers learned to play chess and win. Strange as it may seem, knowing this fact does not make Taube’s reasons against the obsession with AI funny or outdated. Instead it brings more weight to his words.

Computers and Common Sense could be a very good reading for those who talk about computer and digital networks as a brain and explain the processes of one by looking at the other: “because the wire networks of electronic computers analog to the nerve networks of living organisms that seem to be electrical in character.” (p. 74) Taube is very convincing in dethroning bad analogies.

In the Bootstraping book (I’m going to write about next), Thierry Bardini quotes Robert W. Taylor, psychologist, head of a research program on computing at NASA in the beginning of 60’s and one of IPTO at ARPA directors in the late 60’s. In 1989 he confessed why ARPA was giving money to AI:

I was supporting it because of its influence on the rest of the field, not because I believed that they would indeed be able to make a ping-pong-playing machine in the next three years, but because it was an important stimulus to the rest of the field. There was no reason for me to tell them that, of course.

One Response to “The Myth of Thinking Machines”

  1. Michael Daines Says:

    I recently read someone quoting an “old saw” about AI: once you solve an artificial intelligence problem, it’s no longer an artificial intelligence problem.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>