Monday, June 04, 2007

The Birth of the Mind

I must share my excitement over reading the above-mentioned book by Gary Marcus, published by Basic Books (see ). It is a tour through a number of issues: cognitive development, evolution, medicine, behavior, genetics and biochemistry. The search is for answer to important questions such as:

* How can our genes, assumed to be about 30000 in number, create the infrastructure for language, thought and related mental functions? How do they determine the nature and interaction of about 20 billion neurons? Isn’t there a severe gene shortage?
* How come the chimpanzee, sharing 98.5% of our genes, has been left so far behind?
* Are there genetically determined structures in our brain giving us our unique language-using ability, in the entire animal world?
* What is the role of nature and nurture in determining the features of our mind?

I read all this from the point of view of one concerned with AI. My focus was on:

* What can we learn from all this, for making systems better equipped to use human languages?
* Can we get any insight into what is built-in and what is learnt in the domain of language behavior?
* Should we not start with less empty learning systems, if we wish to have them learn successfully?
* Should we not recognize different levels of behavior and value intelligence that copes with the limited world of every day experience?

This is not a full-fledged review of the book. So, I won’t mention all the important issues discussed in the book. I will also not give away the secrets! Go read the book, if you want the answers.

I will only share my opinions, some of which were my own opinions strengthened by reading this book; undoubtedly, there were also some new opinions triggered by the experience. Let me list both types:

* In our search to create intelligent machines with language behavior, as models of man, we have had red herrings drawn across our trail: formal methods of reasoning, completeness and consistency.
* Completeness of knowledge and understanding, formal modes of reasoning and consistency of beliefs are not the hallmarks of human abilities.
* Many researchers in AI have ignored the lessons we have to learn from biology, like:
- Our nervous systems, like those of all other animals, are special purpose computing systems with a limited purpose – competition for survival and the propagation of our genes.
- Evolution does not have the means to suddenly bring forth into the world completely new types of organs and mechanisms. Nerve cells evolved from other cells.
- The brain develops in the fetus in ways similar to that of other organs.
- Our sense of wonder only increases, as we understand in scientific terms more and more about our bodies including our brains, and our behavior.

Let me conclude by saying that I will not accept an AI researcher as fully educated if he has not read books like this!

Srinivasan Ramani

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