Remember the book “Godel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid?” and Douglas Hofstadter and Artificial Intelligence? What they are doing now:
This book was a sensation back in 1980.
It was an absolutely, amazingly brilliant work from a totally unknown first-time professor/author.
So much so that Scientific American’s Martin Gardner praised it to the skies, rightly so, pushing it to the best-seller book lists, and not because was yet another detective novel or a political rant or a ghostwritten memoir by someone rich and famous.
No, it was an well-written, highly entertaining book about the connections among mathematics, computer languages, English and other ancient and modern human languages, DNA code, artificial intelligence, science, history, music, what it means to be human and to think and do stuff. Brilliant, original ideas and clear, sparkling language on every beautifully-written page — with lots of illustrations and diagrams, too!!
The fact that the author’s father (Robert) shared the Nobel Prize in nuclear Physics in 1961 considerably upped the odds that Hofstadter would grow up in intellectual atmosphere that valued independent thinking rather than mindless obedience. According to this Atlantic review, his parents more than tolerated young Douglas’ tendency to go off on various tangents and delve into them deeply and thoroughly and even obsessively for some period of time, until he felt he had another hunch or tangent, which he would again jump into with both feet and all his weight. And all of it carefully and brilliantly documented.
Those documents, I discovered in reading this essay, became the book GEB.
He and the rest of the Artificial Intelligence community agree that they have gone in different directions since then.
AI today no longer tries to imitate the actions of the human brain, but they are doing some pretty amazing stuff with sheer computational speed and power.
Hofstadter thinks that may all be very nice, but that approach does not really help understand how humans think — how we make all those connections in our head in which we strip off 99% of the details about one thing and find one or two ways in which it relates to another thing, constantly and unexpectedly
[I gave some copies to some of my students; I wish I could have afforded to give away more. Instead, I developed lists of books on math and science and math field trips and tessellations and had kids read some of the books and do various projects that I though would illustrate some topic and develop pride and character and a belief that math of whatever sort I was teaching to them was actually worth something and useful in real life as well as pretty cool as an abstract creation of humanity…]
Douglas Hofsadter, the author of GEB is not working for Google or Apple or any other such company helping to develop complex computer programs that do complex things either very well at least some of the time — because DH thinks they won’t lead to more understanding of human or animal intelligence. According to this review, DH has the greatest job in the world — he doesn’t have to teach classes. or attend any meetings at all, or perform experiments. or write grant applications. For a number of years,. he took over the Mathematical Games that Martin Gardner used to write for SciAm, and renamed it “Metamagical Themas” – an anagram of the original name.
A few interesting quotes from the article: (The man who would teach machines to think…)
“Correct speech isn’t very interesting; it’s like a well-executed magic trick—effective because it obscures how it works. What Hofstadter is looking for is “a tip of the rabbit’s ear … a hint of a trap door.”
Now, some quotes from Hofstadter himself, which I got from a collection of his quotes, and which remind me why I thopught his work was so brilliant in the first place:
Meaning lies as much
in the mind of the reader
as in the Haiku.
“How gullible are you? Is your gullibility located in some “gullibility center” in your brain? Could a neurosurgeon reach in and perform some delicate operation to lower your gullibility, otherwise leaving you alone? If you believe this, you are pretty gullible, and should perhaps consider such an operation.”
“Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law”
“Sometimes it seems as though each new step towards AI, rather than producing something which everyone agrees is real intelligence, merely reveals what real intelligence is not. ”
“In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference.”
“I would like to understand things better, but I don’t want to understand them perfectly.”
“This idea that there is generality in the specific is of far-reaching importance.”
If you haven’t fried your brain yet HERE IS GEB IN PDF
“Expand your mind! Not for the faint of heart & yet by no means dry.
Hofstadter makes some fascinating observations about emergent properties (such as intelligence) and diverts us into the extremely heavy mathematics of Godel via the self referencing systems that are Bach’s fugues and Escher’s ‘optical illusion’ style artwork.”
“I could not with a clear conscience recommend this book to everyone, because I’m simply not that cruel. It would be like recommending large doses of LSD to everyone: some small minority will find the experience invaluably enlightening, but for most people it’s just going to melt their brain.”
“GEB is an astonishing achievement in popularizing mathematical philosophy (!), and among the few truly life-changing books I’ve read.”
“You don’t need any formal philosophy to get something out. But if you are not the type that enjoys pondering on the abstract side of things to reach the concrete, you might end up getting bored. With that under your belt, if you are interested in cognition, sense of self, consciousness, thinking, thinking about thinking, thinking about thinking about thinking… and so on, you are in for a ride.”
“It seems surprising to me that Hofstadter would constrain his own book to having only one central message–surely he should understand that a book of this complexity will mean many things to many different people, and that indeed is the reason for its popularity.
So, I still highly recommend this book, but I’m left just a little disappointed that Hofstadter seems somewhat at war with his readers and as a result, won’t attempt to update the book or try to help us reconcile the many events of the last 20 years with the themes of his book.”
Here is excerpt from the Twentieth-Anniversary Edition Preface:
On what GEB is really all about (twenty years later)
So what is this book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid — usually known by its acronym, “GEB” — really all about?
That question has hounded me ever since I was scribbling its first drafts in pen, way back in 1973. Friends would inquire, of course, what I was so gripped by, but I was hard pressed to explain it concisely. A few years later, in 1980, when GEB found itself for a while on the bestseller list of The New York Times, the obligatory one-sentence summary printed underneath the title said the following, for several weeks running: “A scientist argues that reality is a system of interconnected braids.” After I protested vehemently about this utter hogwash, they finally substituted something a little better, just barely accurate enough to keep me from howling again.
Many people think the title tells it all: a book about a mathematician, an artist, and a musician. But the most casual look will show that these three individuals per se, august though they undeniably are, play but tiny roles in the book’s content. There’s no way the book is about these three people!
Well, then, how about describing GEB as “a book that shows how math, art, and music are really all the same thing at their core”? Again, this is a million miles off — and yet I’ve heard it over and over again, not only from nonreaders but also from readers, even very ardent readers, of the book.
And in bookstores, I have run across GEB gracing the shelves of many diverse sections, including not only math, general science, philosophy, and cognitive science (which are all fine), but also religion, the occult, and God knows what else. Why is it so hard to figure out what this book is about? Certainly it’s not just its length. No, it must be in part that GEB delves, and not just superficially, into so many motley topics — fugues and canons, logic and truth, geometry, recursion, syntactic structures, the nature of meaning, Zen Buddhism, paradoxes, brain and mind, reductionism and holism, ant colonies, concepts and mental representations, translation, computers and their languages, DNA, proteins, the genetic code, artificial intelligence, creativity, consciousness and free will — sometimes even art and music, of all things! — that many people find it impossible to locate the core focus.
The Key Images and Ideas that Lie at the Core of GEB
Needless to say, this widespread confusion has been quite frustrating to me over the years, since I felt sure I had spelled out my aims over and over in the text itself. Clearly, however, I didn’t do it sufficiently often, or sufficiently clearly. But since now I’ve got the chance to do it once more — and in a prominent spot in the book, to boot — let me try one last time to say why I wrote this book, what it is about, and what its principal thesis is.
In a word, GEB is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle? What is an “I” and why are such things found (at least so far) only in association with, as poet Russell Edson once wonderfully phrased it, “teetering bulbs of dread and dream” — that is, only in association with certain kinds of gooey lumps encased in hard protective shells mounted atop mobile pedestals that roam the world on pairs of slightly fuzzy, jointed stilts?
GEB approaches these questions by slowly building up an analogy that likens inanimate molecules to meaningless symbols, and further likens selves (or “I”’s or “souls” if you prefer — whatever it is that distinguishes animate from inanimate matter) to certain special swirly, twisty, vortex-like, and meaningful patterns that arise only in particular types of systems of meaningless symbols. It is these strange, twisty patterns that the book spends so much time on, because they are little known, little appreciated, counterintuitive, and quite filled with mystery. And for reasons that should not be too difficult to fathom, I call such strange, loopy patterns “strange loops” throughout the book, although in later chapters, I also use the phrase “tangled hierarchies” to describe basically the same idea.
This is in many ways why M. C. Escher — or more precisely, his art — is prominent in the “golden braid”: because Escher, in his own special way, was just as fascinated as I am by strange loops, and in fact he drew them in a variety of contexts, and wonderfully disorienting and fascinating.
[…] GEB was inspired by my long-held conviction that the “strange loop” notion holds the key to unraveling the mystery that we conscious beings call “being” or “consciousness.”
(GEB: Twentieth-Anniversary Edition, Preface, pp. P1-P2)