Languages and AI

From: Jordan Dimov (
Date: Fri Jul 20 2001 - 12:21:13 MDT

  A few months ago there was a discussion on this list about the utility
and appropriateness of various languages for coding the ultimate AI.
Right now there is a lot of talk about new languages and platforms,
specifically designed to facilitate strong AI programming. Using the
right tools for a task is certainly crucial, and I do agree that comparing
existing languages and designing new ones to aid AI programming is a
worthy activity. However, many people (very bright people, indeed) tend
to lose sight of the bigger picture in this process, and shift the
ballance unreasonably towards language details, even attributing AI-ness
to certain features of a language. In light of all this, I am going to
violate all sorts of copyrights and stuff, and post a short excerpt from
Hofstadter's excellent book "Metamagical Themas" which I found quite

  "[...] Is it possible for a novelist to concieve of plot ideas,
characters, intrigues, emotions, and so on, without being channeled by her
own or his own native language? Are the events that take place in, say,
'Anna Karenina' specifically determined by the nature of the Russian
language and the words that it furnished to Tolstoy? If that were the
case, then of course the novel would be incomprehensible to people who do
not know the Russian language. It would simply make no sense at all. But
that is not even remotely tha case. English-language readers have read
that novel with great pleasure and have just as fully fathomed its
psychological twists and turns as have Russian-language readers. The
reason is that Tolstoy's mind was concerned with concepts that float far
above the grain size of any human language. To think otherwise is to
reduce Tolstoy to a mere syntactician, is to see Tolstoy as pushed around
by low-level quirks and local flukes of his own language.

  Now please understand, I am not by any means asserting that Tolstoy
transcended his own culture and times; certainly he belongs to a
particular era and a particular set of circumstances, and those facts
flavor what he wrote. But 'flavor' is the right word here. The essence
of what he did -- the meat of it, to prolong the 'flavor' metaphor -- is
universal, and has to do with the fact that Tolstoy had profoundly
experienced the human condition, had felt the pangs of many conflicting
emotions in all sorts of ways. That's where the power of his writing
comes from, not from the language he happened to inherit (otherwise, why
wouldn't all Russians be great novelists?); that's why his novels survive
translation not only into other languages (so they reach other cultures),
but also into other eras, with different sensibilities. If Tolstoy
manages to reach further into the human psyche than most other writers do,
it is not the Russian language that deserves the credit, but Tolstoy's
acute sensitivity and empathy for people.

  The analogous statement could be made about AI programs and AI
researchers. One could even mechanically substitute 'AI program' for
'novel', 'Lisp' for 'Russian', and -- well, I have to admit that I would
be hard pressed to come up with 'the Tolstoy of AI'. Oh, well. My point
is simply that good AI researchers are not in any sense slaves to any
language. Their ideas are as far removed from Lisp (or whatever language
they program in) as they are from English or from their favorite
computer's hardware design. As an example, the AI program that has
probably inspired me more than any other is the one called Hearsay-II, a
speech-understanding program developed at Carnegie-Mellon University in
the mid-1970's by a team headed up by D. Raj Reddy and Lee Erman. That
program was written not in Lisp but in a language called SAIL, very
different in spirit from Lisp. Nonetheless, it could easily have been
written in Lisp. The reason it doesn't matter is simply that the
scientific questions of how the mind works are on a totally different
level from the statements of any computer language. The ideas transcend
the language. "

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