Lighthill on AI, and some questions that remain open!

As an AI researcher, and a faculty member at Edinburgh where some of the most interesting episodes in the history of AI were enacted, I find the Lighthill report to be quite fascinating and I have occasionally come back to reading it when thinking about the big questions.

One interesting point is that many of the things he criticised so strongly, e.g., machine translation, have turned out to be the areas where in subsequent decades AI has made the most progress. Some of his other critiques, such as his scepticism about data-driven approaches (spoken like the applied mathematician he was), have turned out exactly the other way – as hallmarks of a methodology that has come to define our age.

There is one observation, however, that he rightly makes, that continues to remain a blind spot for the research community:

We must remember, rather, that the intelligent problem solving and eye-hand co-ordination and scene analysis capabilities that are much studied in category B represent only a small part of the features of the human CNS that give the human race its uniqueness. It is a truism that human beings who are very strong intellectually but weak in emotional drives and emotional relationships are singularly ineffective in the world at large. Valuable results flow from the integration of intellectual ability with the capacity to feel and to relate to other people; until this integration happens problem solving is no good because there is no way of seeing which are the right problems. These remarks have been included to make clear that the over-optimistic category-B-centred view of AI not only fails to take the first fence but ignores the rest of the steeplechase altogether.

He is right, and we still don’t pay nearly enough attention to this. Perhaps it is time, especially given the remarkable new opportunities created by new advances in allied areas ranging from experimental neurosciences to cognitive psychology?

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