Magazine article AI Magazine

The 1998 Simon Newcomb Award

Magazine article AI Magazine

The 1998 Simon Newcomb Award

Article excerpt

Simon Newcomb was a distinguished astronomer and computer who "proved" that heavier-than-air flight was impossible. His proofs are ingenious, cleverly argued, quite convincing to many of his contemporaries, and utterly wrong.

The Simon Newcomb Award is given annually for the silliest published argument attacking AI. Our subject may be unique in the virulence and frequency with which it is attacked, both in the popular media and among the cultured intelligentsia. Recent articles have argued that the very idea of AI reflects a cancer in the heart of our culture and have proven (yet again) that it is impossible. While many of these attacks are cited widely, most of them are ridiculous to anyone with an appropriate technical education.

The following arguments were nominated, often several times, for the 1998 Simon Newcomb Award:

* Sir John Eccles for the "Mysterious Loom Theory."

* Jaron Lanier for the "Rainstorm Argument."

* Neil Postman for the "Metaphor Gone Mad" Criticism.

* Keith Sutherland for the "Symptom-of-Modernism" Criticism.

* Lotfi Zadeh for the "Parking Challenge" Criticism.

Many of these are worthy candidates, but after much deliberation, the Award Committee has selected the "Rainstorm Argument" as the silliest argument directly attacking AI. Thus, the Simon Newcomb award this year goes to Jaron Lanier.

Lanier, who coined the term "virtual reality," is much feted as a renaissance man for his amazing scope of accomplishment, which ranges from musical composition and performance through fashion design to virtual art. He is an essayist whose views can be found in such magazines as Harpers and Wired; he is also, according to his web page, "available for public speaking." He is widely regarded as a computer visionary, advises the captains of industry, and has been compared to Mozart.

Lanier has written several articles attacking the intellectual folly of AI, its corrupting moral influence on society, and the dishonest ways of its proponents. This, like the rest of our quotations here, is taken from [1], but similar articles can be found on Lanier's home page:

   "... machine decision making is running our household finances to a scary
   degree.... Most of us have decided to change our habits so as to appeal to
   these machines [that calculate our credit ratings.] Our demonstrated
   willingness to accommodate machines in this way is ample reason to adopt a
   standing bias against the idea of AI.... Artificial Intelligence has been
   one of the most heavily funded and least bountiful areas of scientific
   inquiry in the second half of the twentieth century. It keeps on failing
   and bouncing back with a different name, only to be overfunded once
   again.... The lemminglike funding charge is always led by the defense
   establishment. AI... lets strategists imagine less gruesome warfare and
   avoid personal responsibility at the same time.... The AI fantasy causes
   people to change more than computers do: therefore, it impedes the progress
   of computers.... A new form of mysterious essence is being proposed for the
   benefit of machines.

All of this ill-informed pseudo-political ranting is remarkably silly, but none of it can really be said to constitute an argument. Fortunately, however, Lanier also gives us the rainstorm argument in order to prove that AI is impossible, thereby qualifying for an Award (the rules stipulate that only arguments, not mere denunciations, be eligible). His argument (also called the meteor-shower argument, the dimples of gummy bears argument, and the everything is a computer argument) is in many ways reminiscent of John Searle's classical performance which won him one of the first Awards, the wall-is-word-processor argument. Lanier, however, has produced a variation on this theme which takes it to new heights of silliness.

Lanier states his argument in terms of consciousness rather than intelligence, but he also declares that he means these to "blur together" for the purposes of his discussion. …

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