Hofstadter and the Singularity

I got a copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s “I Am a Strange Loop” (Amazon) for my birthday and spent the next month puzzling over why this inane book ever got written, other than to make a few bucks from aging technohippies with fond memories of Godel, Escher and Bach. It’s basically a random collection of unstructured jottings, boring personal stories, and contentless musings. Try as he might, Hofstadter never manages to convince us of the connection between Godel’s proof and some kind of loop that supposedly lies at the basis of our consciousness. Oddly, there’s almost no reference to any of the actual research in neuroscience or related fields which has started to cast light on the phenomenon of consciousness in recent years.

Hofstadter’s treatment of Zen in the book is emblematic of its problems. In a dialog between “Strange Loop #641”, a believer in the ideas of I Am a Strange Loop (such as they are), and “Strange Loop #642”, a doubter, he has them saying:

SL #642: Taoism and Zen long ago sensed this paradocical state of affairs and made it a point to try to dismantle or deconstruct or simply get rid of the “I”.

, which was then picked up by the New York Times in its “Reading File” column, dealing with Bob’s recent obsession, the Singularity. I’ll let the reader draw his own conclusions from the original interview, but I can’t avoid pointing out some of the more absurd things Hofstadter says:

I am a deep admirer of humanity at its finest and deepest and most powerful…I find endless depth in such people…I’d hate to think that all that beauty and profundity and goodness could be captured — even approximated in any way at all! — in the horribly rigid computational devices of our era.

But what does “admiration” and your subjectively perceived “depth” have to do with anything? Humanity will not be approximated in the computational devices of our era, but those of the next.

Do I still believe it will happen someday? I can’t say for sure, but I suppose it will eventually, yes. I wouldn’t want to be around then, though. Such a world would be too alien for me. I prefer living in a world where computers are still very very stupid.

He manages to impugn on of the leading futurists of our time with psycho-pop ad hominem arguments:

Ray Kurzweil is terrified by his own mortality and deeply longs to avoid death. I understand this obsession of his and am even somehow touched by its ferocious intensity, but I think it badly distorts his vision. As I see it, Kurzweil’s desperate hopes seriously cloud his scientific objectivity.

and goes on to call not just Kurzweil but also luminaries such as Marvin Minsky “overgrown teen-age sci-fi addicts.” Just out of curiousity, Doug, can you name a conclusion of Kurzweil’s that you think has been clouded by his “desperate hopes”?

3 Responses to “Hofstadter and the Singularity”

  1. Timothy Says:

    I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lectures on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book.

    Recently read another incredible book that I can’t recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil’s work. The book is “”My Stroke of Insight”” by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor’s talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It’s spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I’m not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I’ve read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they’re making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)
    If you haven’t heard Dr Taylor’s TEDTalk, that’s an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it’s 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational).

    There’s a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best “”Fantastic Voyage”” , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!

  2. serge Says:

    great tex, but please keep it in wide format- this is hard to read when using big fonts for display.

  3. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    I haven’t read this book, but are you sure #641 is supposed to represent Hofstadter’s own position? I find it surprising, giving the much deeper insights on mind (and Zen) he has in GEB.

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