The Science of Solving Problems vs Football

You should read this great article by PhD student Joon Chuah at the University of Florida about the baffling plan to save money at UF by taking the Computer Science department apart while increasing the budget for sports. He explains the place of computer science in a university and society wonderfully. I’m reminded of a great line from a commercial (for BASF apparently) that relates to what he’s trying to say about why Computer Science is important, the tagline goes:

We don’t make the products you use everyday; we make the products you use everyday better.

Computer science is sort of like that. We don’t work out how the universe works, or how genes cause disease, or how to build stronger materials or how to manage the economy; we work out how to turn questions into computations, how to solve huge, complex problems efficiently, we invent the tools that scientists, engineers, economists and anyone else can use to solve their problems.

Sometimes in CS we assume everyone else knows this, that everyone understands the deal we have. I think of CS as a kind of meta-science, like mathematics that investigates common patterns that underlie every other field of inquiry.  We look at the problem of how to solve problems, the answers we find usually turn out to be quite useful to someone, even if it’s not always clear at the beginning quite how they will be useful.  But sometimes I wonder if maybe everyone doesn’t really get it. Maybe the reason people ask you to fix your computer is they don’t think about the difference between engineering, information technology and computer science. Maybe, this is something the field of computer science needs to work on making more clear to everyone who doesn’t know us that well as a field.

But that’s a big problem to solve, one step at a time.

If you want to help reverse this move at UF support this student protest site and let people know how crazy you think this is.

The Chomsky/Norvig — Classical/Statistical AI Brouhaha

This post summarizes an fascinating ongoing discussion on the state of Artificial Intelligence research. It should be accessible to technical and non-technical but I’ll add more to it as the discussion heats up.

If you’ve come from my other blog Pop the Stack then you are probably of a bit more political bent,  you might be surprised to learn that this is a debate between Noam Chomsky (yes, that Noam Chomsky, everyone has their own Noam Chomsky and they’re all the same person, sort of like the Queen) and the head of Google research Peter Norvig.

No, Google hasn’t declared an extrajudicial assassination a victory or undermined democracy in favour of the Military-Industrial complex. Chomsky is a very famous in linguistics and a founding father of some of the concepts of computer science and artificial intelligence. Peter Norvig on the other hand wrote the book on modern AI and Google is the epitome of modern AI research which treats intelligence as advanced pattern recognition and  statistical analysis of huge amounts of data under uncertainty. It seems that some people disagree that this is the way to building a full artificial intelligence. And the dust is still flying.

I’m going to put up links to the parts I see and add commentary later, I don’t think this is a going to die off soon, especially with a cluster of AI conferences coming over the next few months, so stay tuned.

The Beginning

It all began with the MIT’s Brains, Minds, and Machines symposium on May 3,-5 2011. The initial review of the event from MIT TechReview. Hopefully there will be a video at some point, doesn’t MIT videotape everything?

One theme of the discussion that has garnered attention is summarized here in this statement by Marvin Minsky:

“You might wonder why aren’t there any robots that you can send in to fix the Japanese reactors,” said Marvin Minsky, who pioneered neural networks in the 1950s and went on to make significant early advances in AI and robotics. “The answer is that there was a lot of progress in the 1960s and 1970s. Then something went wrong. [Today] you’ll find students excited over robots that play basketball or soccer or dance or make funny faces at you. [But] they’re not making them smarter.”

Norvig’s Response

Sufficed to say Minksy’s statement is not how a lot of researchers would characterize the current state or the recent advances in the field. Peter Norvig explains the problem much more clearly than I or most people could hope to.  If you aren’t familiar with Peter Norvig then he literally wrote The Book on modern AI with Stuart Russell and he is also the director of research at Google. Be sure to read the comment section there is some real intelligent debate there as well as a little bit of flaming.


Here’s a great commentary by Mark Liberman on Norvig’s response (he mostly agrees) and support for his characterization of Chomsky’s views.


Or perhaps you’d like to hear what philosophy of linguistics people think of the discussion?

Oh, Reddit has a great debate going on.

More to come…

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