By Analogy

Wired: So, where are you headed? Are you trying mostly to understand human creativity? Or are you trying to replicate it?


Well, you catch me in a tricky dilemma here. I want any computer program that my students and I work on to delight me with its cleverness. I want it to outclever its programmers. But at the same time, if after 10 or 20 years of work my program composed a great novel, made a series of great mathematical discoveries, or wrote lots of great one-liners, I would be terribly distressed. I feel the human spirit is infinitely more complex than anything that we’re going to be able to create in the short run. And if we somehow did create it in the short run, it would mean that we aren’t so complex after all, and that we’ve all been tricking ourselves.

Take music. Some of my favorite composers are Chopin, Bach, and Fauré. There is something so deep about them. Or take Billie Holiday, singing with some of her accompanists in the 1930s – playing and improvising. Now, if all that incredible poignancy turns out to be something that can be mass marketed on a chip, it will destroy my image of something very deep and sacred to the human spirit. I’ll just have to eat my words and say, “Well, I guess all that complexity was just another kind of circuitry we can manufacture.” You want to write some new Bach music? Just type in b-a-c-h, hit carriage return, and, five minutes later, you’ll have a whole new Mass.

If that were the case, I would be devastated. If such minds of infinite subtlety and complexity and emotional depth could be trivialized by a small chip, it would destroy my sense of what humanity is about – what humans are about, what love is about, what caring about people is about, and what humor is.

Wired: But what if it took several centuries of hard work to make a device that could spit these things out? And what if it wasn’t a chip, but something about the size of a refrigerator? Would that make you feel better?


Only if the refrigerator had emotions as complex as ours. Let me read you a bit from Gödel, Escher, Bach: “A ‘program’ which could produce brilliant music would have to wander around the world on its own, fighting its way through the maze of life and feeling every moment of it. It would have to understand the joy and loneliness of a chilly night wind, the longing for a cherished hand, the inaccessibility of a distant town, the heartbreak and regeneration after a human death.

It would have to have known resignation and world-weariness, grief and despair.” The refrigerator couldn’t be stationary.

It would have to acquire its abilities by struggling in the world. By failing, succeeding, and socializing.

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