Dear Commons Community,
Noam Chomsky, Ian Roberts and Jeffrey Watumull had a guest essay in yesterday’s New York Times questioning the capabilities and the promise of artificial intelligence programs such as ChatGPT. Dr. Chomsky and Dr. Roberts are professors of linguistics. Dr. Watumull is a director of artificial intelligence at a science and technology company. My student Essie Brew-Hammond alerted me to this piece. Here is an excerpt.
Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that to live in a time of great peril and promise is to experience both tragedy and comedy, with “the imminence of a revelation” in understanding ourselves and the world. Today our supposedly revolutionary advancements in artificial intelligence are indeed cause for both concern and optimism. Optimism because intelligence is the means by which we solve problems. Concern because we fear that the most popular and fashionable strain of A.I. — machine learning — will degrade our science and debase our ethics by incorporating into our technology a fundamentally flawed conception of language and knowledge.
OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Google’s Bard and Microsoft’s Sydney are marvels of machine learning. Roughly speaking, they take huge amounts of data, search for patterns in it and become increasingly proficient at generating statistically probable outputs — such as seemingly humanlike language and thought. These programs have been hailed as the first glimmers on the horizon of artificial general intelligence — that long-prophesied moment when mechanical minds surpass human brains not only quantitatively in terms of processing speed and memory size but also qualitatively in terms of intellectual insight, artistic creativity and every other distinctively human faculty.
That day may come, but its dawn is not yet breaking, contrary to what can be read in hyperbolic headlines and reckoned by injudicious investments. The Borgesian revelation of understanding has not and will not — and, we submit, cannot — occur if machine learning programs like ChatGPT continue to dominate the field of A.I. However useful these programs may be in some narrow domains (they can be helpful in computer programming, for example, or in suggesting rhymes for light verse), we know from the science of linguistics and the philosophy of knowledge that they differ profoundly from how humans reason and use language. These differences place significant limitations on what these programs can do, encoding them with ineradicable defects.
It is at once comic and tragic, as Borges might have noted, that so much money and attention should be concentrated on so little a thing — something so trivial when contrasted with the human mind, which by dint of language, in the words of Wilhelm von Humboldt, can make “infinite use of finite means,” creating ideas and theories with universal reach.
The human mind is not, like ChatGPT and its ilk, a lumbering statistical engine for pattern matching, gorging on hundreds of terabytes of data and extrapolating the most likely conversational response or most probable answer to a scientific question. On the contrary, the human mind is a surprisingly efficient and even elegant system that operates with small amounts of information; it seeks not to infer brute correlations among data points but to create explanations.
Chomsky and his co-writers make a valid criticism that AI programs such as ChatGPT are not ready by any means to replace the wonders of the human brain. However, it cannot be denied that these programs keep chipping away and keep providing more “intelligence” capabilities.