Monday, November 16, 2015

"How to Create a Mind" - Ray Kurzweil

As an active AI researcher in the 1980s I knew about Ray Kurzweil. He was into the nuts and bolts of speech-recognition systems with a sideline in AI-fantasising ('The Singularity'). I was much more interested in the formal theory of intelligent systems (modal logics with automata-theoretic models).

As I mentioned a few posts ago, classical AI is out and Deep Learning is the new thing. The world has rolled around to Kurzweil's front door and he has a plum new job with Google. Belatedly time to learn from the master?

Initially I was a fan of "How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed" (which purports to be the blueprint for Kurzweil's work at Google). Early chapters give a good account of important brain structures (neocortex, hypothalamus, amygdala, etc); it's rather Reader's Digest, but written from a functionalist and computational point of view. He also gives a good elementary account of sparse coding, hidden markov models and genetic algorithms applied to the architecture of a number of real-world successful systems (mostly his own) .. but even, to an extent, that of IBM's Watson.

And then it all went so horribly wrong.

First off there's the vanity. Name-dropping, lot's of it, all with faux-humility. There's Famous Professor X (private communication), Famous Professor Y (who invited me in to discuss his work); there's damning with faint praise (Z's system isn't built the way I would have done it, it required hundreds of people working intensely for many years, with only modest results - but I give due credit for what it can do); there's a pervading essence of insecure self-regard, self-centredness and a need to control others.

All my instincts tell me this guy is a smart, huckstering salesman - a less-intense Steve Jobs.

Google, what were you thinking of?

The latter half of the book meanders into oversimplified philosophy (and there's an oxymoron for you). There's Kurzweil on consciousness, free-will and qualia. It's not so much that what he says is wrong - it's just unoriginal, unperceptive, bland, boring and padded.

Let me leave you with Professor McGinn, from Wikipedia:
"In a critical review of the book, philosopher Colin McGinn refers to "the hype so blatantly brandished in its title" and asks: "He is clearly a man of many parts—but is ultimate theoretician of the mind one of them?" McGinn calls Kurzweil's claim that pattern recognition is the key to mental phenomena "obviously false" and concludes that the book is "interesting in places, fairly readable, moderately informative, but wildly overstated".
I would add that despite the author's irritating self-presumption of omniscience, the book is littered with mistakes and misunderstandings (his grasp of physics is particularly wobbly).

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