Monday, February 11, 2008

Godel, Escher, Bach (major geek alert)

This reminds me of that classic Johnny Carson bit, Carnac the Magnificent. The swami, bejeweled and enturbaned, holds up the envelope to his forehead and closes his eyes: "Godel, Escher, Bach". "Girdle Esher Bock" echoes Ed McMahon. He reads the card: "Instructions for a German wedding."

(I tried desperately to come up with a better one than that. It's the Escher that kept getting in the way.)

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. This is actually a book about self-reference, about logic and metalogic, about patterns and fugues, about artificial intelligence, about symbols and interpretations. I haven't read very far yet, but it is already pretty mindblowing. It won a Pulitzer and it hasn't changed since 1979.

Plus this guy told me to read it. About halfway through the blog post, he veers off into stuff about being a programmer and making software that may or may not interest you.

In the preface to the 20th anniversary edition, Hofstadter explains the main idea: things that refer to themselves in some sense examine their own state and are conscious. This self reference, he calls a "strange loop", and suggests that there may be a scale of consciousness based on the amount of introspection that a thing or system does. It's basically a goofy, insightful, jarring 800 page book. With bonus dialogues between Lewis Carroll's Tortoise and Achilles. With digressions on Bach canons. With pictures. Only 100 pages in; I'll tell you how it goes.

I've also been reading lately that the Internet is like a brain. See, for instance, Dimensions of the One Machine. I've read many similar such arguments that seem to conflate hardware density and speed with intelligence, then claim that in the year 2040, due to the consistent doubling of computer power due to Moore's law, we'll have computers with brains that surpass the human mind.

I think these arguments ignore the complex structural differences between the network of neurons and synapses that we have, which are stuporously interconnected, and the logic gates on a computer, which are not. While we're stuck on the x86 architecture (like most home computers nowadays), we will not stumble onto artificial brains.

One thing the Internet does not seem to do much is introspect. The closest thing we have at the moment is probably search. Google is not really the Internet. It is really about the Internet. However, introspection seems to imply a greater sense of feedback and control than Google really does... Google holds up the mirror to the Internet, but then what happens? Really, Google just builds a better mirror.

The feedback at the moment is all coming from the human users.

If the Internet were a giant brain, how could we even interpret its thoughts?

In vaguely related news, Will Wright's intelligent design simulator, Spore, is coming out in September. From cell to civilization to spaceship, the player evolves their creations, then sets out to explore a vast universe. Here is a cool interview with the latest. For earlier posts, see here and here. I've been waiting for this one for a long time.

1 comment:

vince said...

Try this for a discussion of machines and humans.


The more I learn about Godel, the more I think he was on to something with his mathematics pursuits. He distrusted logical determinations of truth. As you know he is most famous for demonstrating that mathematical systems are incomplete and inconsistent (which includes logical systems).

However, his attempts at mathematical studies of accessing 'truth' by intuition rather than logic. He was a platonist through and through.