A note to a teacher in India asking his comments on some passages which students in US are asked to study as college preparation.
We have often spoken about a fundamental difference between Western and Indian thought and I remember your saying that you were quite certain of convincing the people in West about the truth of Indian ideas, if you have the chance to do that.
This is a problem which I share your interest in, but I have come across some barriers in trying to make this happen.
You may think it is due to my not understanding the subject well enough myself, or not having the right manner of arguing it. I am sure you see that there is much to the nuances of the language which enables some ideas to be communicated properly. Without sufficient ability such as a native speaker of the language possesses, it is hard to convince someone he understands you wrongly, even though it is obvious.
Living here, learning these subtleties of english, and carrying in my mind always those ideas of Indian thought that I wished to convey, I feel myself like someone who was earlier only seeing some hills from afar and wondering what lay there among its trees, and now I am close enough and can see what lies here.
I find it interesting as I bring up this point with you, as a teacher. I noticed that society here places a very important emphasis on what is taught to which age group. The course work is naturally selected by senior and experienced educators, but the purpose of the material they select is to draw the focus of the upcoming generation to issues which are highly important from the society's perspective. This early exposure to these issues and to engage them in these topics , gives a forward looking direction to their progress as a whole.
If college can be thought of as the time where we turn to developing skills of how ideas are implemented, whether it is engineering, business or any other discipline, then the stage just prior to entering college becomes relevant to where ideas can be planted. Like planting seeds, the choice the community makes is , which crop to plant so that in the ensuing conditions, it will bring the best returns and will also thrive itself.
I have already written so much that I wont be able to discuss the issue I wished to set before you, at least not in this letter. But I came across something in my daughters school work, it's the preparation for SAT. I came across the idea in it's "seed form", where all these young people are bound to pay a lot of attention to it.
The exercise is to read two contrasting passages on "artificial intelligence", the first is by a Nobel laureate and the other is a science journalist. The exercise is to test their comprehension of these passages by answering some 12 questions. I thought this a clever way to have tilled the mind of the students and put whatever was thought appropriate by the educators.
These passages discuss artificial intelligence, the simulation of mental activities by computers. Passage 1 is adapted from a 1985 book review by a Nobel-Prize winning chemist. Passage 2, written by a science journalist, is adapted from a 1996 book.
Artificial intelligence has attracted some of the world's best mathematicians and scientists. They have found it possible to simulate sophisticated activities like playing chess but hard to imitate the simple ability of seeing in three dimensions, as if it took more intelligence for a frog to catch a fly than for a chess player to formulate winning strategies.
Common sense dictates that there is more to the human brain than problem solving and information processing, because with consciousness goes individuality, imagination, love of beauty, tears and laughter, heroism and cowardice, and occasionally artistic talent. Greatness in art and poetry carries with it an idiosyncratic, evocative, often irrational way of looking at the world and expressing its image, as in Paul Gauguin's paintings --- which incorporate nonnaturalistic colors and abstract figures --- or Samuel Taylor Coleridge's dreamlike ballad, " The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Irish writer George Moore expressed the distinction best when he said that art is not mathematics, it's individuality. Even so artificial intelligence experts are brilliant at confounding any distinction between humans and computers that a layman raises. For example A M Turing devised a question and answer game between A and B, who are in one room, and C, who is in another, and can communicate with A only by typed messages. C tries to discover whether A or B is a person or a computer, but the computer defeats C's interrogation. When C asks A to write a sonnet, the computer answers quite reasonably, " I never could write poetry".
Will computers ever acquire consciousness? Physiologists have discovered how the eye processes images, and they have mapped areas of the brain where speech and hearing are centered, but the physical nature of consciousness has eluded them. As a school boy I was mystified by gravity, and when I reached college I eagerly attended college lectures in hopes of learning what it really is. I was disappointed when I was merely taught that gravity is what it does, that it is an attractive force between bodies that makes the apple fall with an acceleration of 10 meters per second squared. Perhaps consciousness is like that, and we may get no further than stating that it is what it does: a property of the brain that makes us aware of ourselves and the world around us, " a beam of light directed outward," as the fictional character Dr. Zhivago calls it. in the absence of knowledge of the physical nature of consciousness, the question of whether it will ever be possible to simulate it with a machine cannot be answered.
There is an odd little subculture within science whose members speculate about how intelligence might evolve if and when it sheds its human component. Participants are not practicing science, of course, but wishful thinking. They are concerned not with what the world is, but with what it might be centuries or millennia hence. Their suppositions may nonetheless provide fresh perspectives on some age-old philosophical questions: what would we do if we could do anything? What are the ultimate limits of knowledge? One modern practioner who addresses these questions is robotics engineer Hans Moravec. Moravec is a cheerful man who seems to be intoxicated by his own ideas. As he unveiled his visions of the future in my conversations with him, his intensity seemed proportional to the preposterousness of what he said.
Moravec asserted that science desperately needs new goals. "Most of the things that have been accomplished in this century were really nineteenth-century ideas," he said. "It's time for fresh ideas now." What goal could be more thrilling than creating "mind children," intelligent machines capable of feats we cannot even imagine? In his 1988 book Mind Children , Moravec discussed the possibility of creating such intelligent machines. He assured me that engineers will soon create robots capable of doing household chores. And by the next century, Moravec said, robots will be as intelligent as humans and will essentially take over the economy. " We're really out of work at that point," Morovec claimed. Humans might still pursue "some quirky stuff like poetry" that springs from psychological vagaries beyond the grasp of robots, but robots will have all the important jobs.
But what, I asked, will these machines do with their newfound power? Will they be interested in pursuing science for its own sake? "Absolutely," Morovec replied. "That's the core of my fantasy: that our nonbiological descendents, without most of our limitations, could pursue basic knowledge of things." In fact, science will be the only worthy motive of intelligent machines. "I'm sure the basic labels and subdivisions of the nature of reality are going to change," Morovec added. " Machines may view human attitudes towards consciousness, for example, as hopelessly primitive, akin to the primitive physics concepts of the ancient Greeks."
The assignment or should I better say my purpose, is to convey a somewhat dead-end to development for thought provided in the passages above. This is all the more poignant by virtue of its being the " seeds for philosophical thinking" with nothing else even to choose from. Like a statement on the entire capability of humans and civilizations.
On reading the above, there isn't anything else that a student comes away with but the conclusion of the first passage, of where he or she should put their own minds. This is presumptuous and unacceptable.
On the other hand, there is something at least gained in a cultured discussion where one is mindful, that after all, the language alone is the medium and the barrier to the full expression of thoughts born and nurtured in another world.
I've provided a link of this page to a forum, where some class-friends of mine and our teacher, in India, can follow to. I would wish them to read the discussions had here.
But that is my point. People whose native language is English too often trip those from other cultures on the language itself, ignoring the speaker's intent and content of his words.
I will venture to add something which may lead us to where I wish our discussion would take us.
In the passages above I am drawing attention to the conclusions of the writer and the persons who put this material for study, about the nature of consciousness. We, from another civilization have much to say on that. And we would be happy to share that too. Difficulty is an obvious one here, the language. Fact is, there is another subtler, and more difficult to handle problem too. That is when people of this culture, those to whom the language is a native one, shy away from our ideas. Its an easy solution for them, to simply put up a barrier of the language, but they could as easily, were they so inclined, let it down. Hey we're trying to learn your language, aren't we.
As an aside, I spent last two years in France and never did learn the language. Despite what many say of the French attitude, I resonated with them. In their grocery stores, their malls, in the shops, on walks when I'd meet anyone. Totally polite, such a respectful attitude, when it was so obvious I was not a European. Culture runs deep, and those who have it, feel it in others, their depth.