[Humanist] 23.326 honest AI can teach us

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Sep 29 07:47:19 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 326.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 28 Sep 2009 12:16:07 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the humour of honesty

Many here will enjoy a long-ago article in the ACM SIGART ("special
interest group for artificial intelligence") Bulletin 57, April 1976,
Drew McDermott's "Artificial Intelligence Meets Natural Stupidity", in
which he calls the then already maturing field of AI to account for its
sloppy thinking. It's salutory as well as enjoyable because it gives a
fine example of honesty within a field that is readily transferrable to
our own.

McDermott goes on at length, for example, about mnemonics, like
UNDERSTAND or PROBLEM SOLVER, by which the programmer "is (until
proven innocent) merely begging the question. He may mislead a lot
of people, most prominently himself, and enrage a lot of others." "When
you say (GOAL ...),", he notes, "you can just feel the enormous power at
your fingertips. It is, of course, an illusion."

I am particularly fond of his concluding suggestion regarding research
in AI:

> The standard for such research should be a partial success, but AI as
> a field is starving for a few carefully documented failures. Anyone
> can think of several theses that could be improved stylistically and
> substantively by being rephrased as reports on failures. I can learn
> more by just being told why a technique won't work than by being made
>  to read between the lines.

Where are our "carefully documented failures"? Have we been so seduced by a
naive notion of progress and so browbeaten by the imperative to get grants
that we have hidden them?


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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