2005 Barwise Prize

This is the paper Hubert gave when he received his Barwise Prize in 2005.

When I was teaching at MIT in the early sixties, students from the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory would come to my Heidegger course and say in effect: “You philosophers have been reflecting in your armchairs for over 2000 years and you still don’t understand how the mind works.  We in the AI Lab have taken over and are succeeding where you philosophers have failed.  We are now programming computers to exhibit human intelligence: to solve problems, to understand natural language, to perceive, and to learn.” In 1968 Marvin Minsky, head of the AI lab, proclaimed:  “Within a generation we will have intelligent computers like HAL in the film, 2001.”

As luck would have it, in 1963, I was invited by the RAND Corporation to evaluate the pioneering work of Alan Newell and Herbert Simon in a new field called Cognitive Simulation (CS).  Newell and Simon claimed that both digital computers and the human mind could be understood as physical symbol systems, using strings of bits or streams of neuron pulses as symbols representing the external world.  Intelligence, they claimed, merely required making the appropriate inferences from these internal representations.  As they put it: “A physical symbol system has the necessary and sufficient means for general intelligent action.”

As I studied the RAND papers and memos, I found to my surprise that, far from replacing philosophy, the pioneers in CS had learned a lot, directly and indirectly from the philosophers.  They had taken over Hobbes’ claim that reasoning was calculating, Descartes’ mental representations, Leibniz’s idea of a “universal characteristic” – a set of primitives in which all knowledge could be expressed, -- Kant’s claim that concepts were rules, Frege’s formalization of such rules, and Russell’s postulation of logical atoms as the building blocks of reality.  In short, without realizing it, AI researchers were hard at work turning rationalist philosophy into a research program.

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