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Explaining AI and Creativity? Down the Slippery Slope with Noam Chomsky

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

As relayed to me by a colleague, there was a guest essay in the Opinion section of the New York Times , March 8, 2023, by Noam Chomsky, Ian Roberts and Jeffrey Watumull. (As noted by the Times "Dr. Chomsky and Dr. Roberts are professors of linguistics. Dr. Watumull is a director of artificial intelligence at a science and technology company.")

(The link is to a "gift" copy of the article which should be accessible to those who do not subscribe to the NYT.)

Many of its readers wrote back to the Times. I think I'll add to the general feedback that the title "False Promise" bordered on clickbait, given that AI builders generally do not promise what the irrationally exuberant populace can't seem to wait for. AI marketers do. The exuberance leads to hype-fueled disappointment, which leads to hostility towards AI. So, it's an ironic title, yes, but ironic because it is a lightweight but pervasive example of disinformation propagated by the media and ersatz intellectuals without AI being the culprit. I'm going to agree with some other observers, too, by saying that Chomsky's idea of the biggest concern is nowhere near the biggest concern. The biggest concern is that unscrupulous people with power and money will use AI to either indifferently or intentionally harm those who stand in their way, frequently by manipulating people who are not-so-intelligent.

Other than that, it's weird that he spends so much time on such a good explanation of what learning machines are built to do, but leaves such a complete void of explanation of how the "human operating system" is built to do what he says it does. The effect is of making the claims of absolute difference between them a bit hollow. He doesn't establish that AI *can't* do what human intelligence can do, because he doesn't show us the mechanism behind the human intelligence. No apples to apples comparison is actually made. We expect more from Chomsky.

Even so, my favorite line in his whole piece is this: "Intelligence consists not only of creative conjectures but also of creative criticism." I love that. But then, he says humans are "limited IN THE KINDS OF explanations we can rationally conjecture". Superficially, if not obviously, that makes it unclear as to whether he is saying that creative conjecture IS or IS NOT limited by "reason".

His end statement is really the reason for the piece: "we can only laugh or cry at the popularity of AI systems". In other words, the popularity is the thing that is actually pretty faulty.

I think he should have written, then, about why people want AI to do what it isn't built to do and then get freaked when it doesn't do what they want. The point here is that ChatGPT does not promise false things. People try to make it do things it isn't built to do.

My view is that I don't attribute any of the following to automation (a machine thought of as an actor): inspired, instinctive, imaginative.

And I think most people believe that those three things are essential ingredients of what they would call "creative". AND that when they say "artificial" intelligence they believe that those three things are omitted, which is the same as saying that they don't think artificial intelligence is "creative" regardless of how "generative" it is.

In my words, "the spontaneous adoption of an experience as being meaningful" is a pretty consistent way to start identifying both inspiration and instinct. Imagination, differently, is when we take a "WHAT if" and treat it "AS if" it was already real.

Imaginary experiences can have the same impact as actual experiences, which means that they may provoke a spontaneous adoption of the experience as being meaningful. That adoption probably depends on what we want, what we fear, i.e., what we have feelings about. Machines don't have feelings, so this particular feedback loop -- of the imaginary inspiring instincts that fuel the further creation of the imaginary -- doesn't happen for machines.

Chomsky claims that "explanation" is the true sign of human intelligence but I think he's wrong. Improvisation is the true sign of human intelligence.

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