The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Pamela McCorduck. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Howdy. This is Jim Rutt, and this is The Jim Rutt Show. Today’s guest is Pamela McCorduck, an author of books and articles of the history and cultural implications of artificial intelligence. She’s also a published novelist.
Pamela: Hi, Jim. Great to be here. Great to hear your voice.
Jim: Great to hear your voice again, too. It’s been too long. I read my first book by Pamela BA, i.e. before Amazon so I don’t have the exact date. Regular listeners of this show know that I often have looked up in my Amazon order history and get the date of when I read specific books or at least bought and they’re usually pretty close. But I actually bought one of Pamela’s books way back yonder, The Fifth Wave.
Pamela: Oh, it was The Fifth Generation.
Jim: Oh Fifth Generation. Oh, you’re right.
Pamela: If you bought it when it was published, that would have been 1983.
Jim: It was probably a little right in that time frame. That was when I was in Boston, for sure. So between 83 and 86. And it was basically talking about mostly a major Japanese attempt to achieve a great leap forward in AI using logic programming, particularly the Prolog language. And interestingly, reading that book caused me to go out and learn Prolog. And I played with it a little bit on and off, but I eventually came away with a view which I’ve held to this day that logic programming approaches to high end AI inevitably run into big problems, what’s called the competent torque explosion, too many ways to parse the logic. And you need to add in heuristics or something else to prune the tree. So I eventually quickly actually lost interest in Prolog and made the assumption probably the Japanese are going to fail at this. And they did but it was really an interesting book and was one of the first things I read about AI. So that’s very interesting.
Jim: Today, we’re mostly going to talk about Pamela’s new book, titled This Could be Important: My Life and Times with the Artificial Intelligentsia. I described it as a blend of personal memoir, a rough history of the earlier days of AI, some amazing profiles of leading personalities from the period, some very interesting musings on the relationship between science, technology and the humanities. And it’s a love story. Regular listeners know that I talk to authors about the books fairly regularly. And I usually play it fairly straight. But this time, I’m going to just say it straight out people, you should buy this book. This is an unusually excellent book. It doesn’t fit into any known genre, so I’m sure it will be driving or publisher nuts on how to market it. But the writing is truly beautiful. Pamela has exceeded herself
Jim: This is the best of her books I’ve ever read in terms of wordsmanship, the way she blends the personal, the historic, the personalities, musings, the love story, it’s brilliant. So not only should you read this this book but if you like it as much as I do, you should tell your friends are read it too. It’s available on at-
Pamela: No money passed hands between us.
Jim: No. My listeners know I don’t usually say stuff like this. I play it pretty straight just talking to the authors about their book. But this one really got me and I got to say, you’ve exceeded yourself on this one Pamela. I can see a huge amount of both love and work went into creating this. This is a unusually excellent book.
Pamela: Thank you. Thank you.
Jim: As my listeners know, I don’t normally carry on this way. But I figured I sort of had to, to be honest, because the book was so good. Let’s start off with what I at least took away as your theme, a sort of a recurring theme that’s woven all through the book. In fact you start off with it right from the beginning. I would describe it as an exploration by you of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures, and how it relates to the history of AI. Now many of our listeners are probably young enough. They have no idea who C.P. Snow was or what the general outline of his two cultures argument was. So maybe you can start us with that.
Pamela: I’ll be happy to. C.P Snow or Charles Percy Snow was a scientist and academic in England. And in the mid 20th century, it occurred to him and he wrote about the fact that the scientists and the humanists never talk to each other. And he was in a unique position because not only was he a scientist, but he was also a novelist. He wrote a series of novels called Strangers and Brothers, which are a very interesting read even today, because they talked about how mathematicians and scientists played an enormous role in World War Two, especially in winning it for the Allies.
Pamela: So he thought this is terrible. These people should be speaking to each other. And furthermore, he went on to note that humanists describe culture as what they were interested in, and nothing else counted, which was kind of arrogant of them. And he said, “This can’t go on, we’ve got to come to some synthesis.” Well, in this period, it’s really hard to explain what an explosive idea this was. And I sat there as an undergraduate listening to him give this lecture and I was almost out of my seat. I was just so excited by this because I had been interested in science, but I was an English major and I had switched between the two. Should I be a science major? Should I be an English major? And finally decided to stick with English because I loved it. Anyway, this made an explosion around the cultural world, specially the Anglo American world, but also the book… it became a book Finally, it was translated into many languages. So this was a chasm that needs to be crossed, and Snow put his finger on it. Boy, did he make the humanities mad. Boy, did he make them mad, wait our culture.
Jim: Yeah. And you tell lots of stories along the way, which we’ll get to about how they tried to reap their revenge. Switching back to the memoir, the bio, your own personal autobiography aside, you were born in England and like you said, you were born, your mother was giving birth in a tent while bombs were falling from the blitz.
Pamela: Yes. Well, she was in a hospital. But there was a tarpaulin between her and the night because that wall had been blown away by a bomb.
Jim: Close enough to being born in a tent. So then what happened? How did you get across the big ditch?
Pamela: My father, in fact was in the RAF and he was stationed in Canada. So while my mother and I were in England being bombed on in the blitz, he was in Canada teaching airmen how to navigate. He came down to the United States to visit cousins in the New York area. And he wrote to my mother and said, “After the war, we’re going to America.” And that’s essentially what happened.
Jim: How old were you then?
Pamela: This was right after the war, so 1946. I had just turned six. And my twin brother and sister, they’re twins, not me, were just two.
Jim: That was quite amazing. And you landed in New York originally, but then you ended up in California fairly quickly.
Pamela: That’s right. Work took him to California, and I essentially grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Jim: It sounds like that’s always been a place that’s had a resonance for you.
Jim: Yeah, one passage I saw in the book, you mentioned living in the Sky Londa area.
Jim: And the reason that struck me is I’ve never lived in California, but I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time visiting there, hitchhiking around in my younger days, hanging out, being a troublemaker and I love that area. I love down on La Honda Road, I love Skyline. I’ve always been curious why that area was not more popular, at least last time I prowled around there maybe 10 years ago. It was still fairly countrified up there. And people were more happy living down Cheek by Jowl in Mountain View or what have you. But what a wonderful place that is, right?
Pamela: Oh, it was wonderful. But there were problems. There’s no water supply. There was in those days, no gas supplies. So we had to have our gas bottled to fill the tank. We had a septic tank. We had a water break at least once a month where I had to crawl hand over hand over the hillside to find the break and fix it. It takes a lot of time to live in the country.
Jim: Oh yeah, I live on a farm so we have all those things to deal with. We have a well. We have a septic tank. We have gas and we even have to have a generator because it’s not infrequently the power goes down for a day or two.
Pamela: Exactly right. Not everyone’s willing to put up with that.
Jim: Of course you can take the back roads down to the ocean too, right?
Pamela: Oh, yes, often.
Jim: Very, very, very wonderful. So then, how did you happen to make the connection into the AI world?
Pamela: Oh, that was easy. That same undergraduate who sat absolutely breathless listening to C.P. Snow talk about the Two Cultures was approached… let me put it this way. I was working my way through college, and I was a typist. I typed for the School of Business. I guess they figured, she doesn’t know anything about this, true. She can type exams. She can type course outlines and so on and so forth, which I did. It was wonderful. Anyway, two young assistant professors came to me and they said, “We know you’re going to graduate in January.”, which was June 1961, January 61. “And you’re going to go to graduate school the following fall. How about working on our book in the meanwhile?” And I said very enthusiastically, “Yes, I will. What’s it about?” And they said artificial intelligence.
Pamela: Now, Jim, I had heard the term, but I did not know what really what it was. And so I said to one of the guys, “Could you explain that, please?” And he said, “Artificial intelligence is a machine doing things, which if a human did them, we say that’s intelligent behavior.” Okay, so that’s how I got into AI.
Jim: And listeners, that was 1961.
Pamela: No. The conversation took place in 1960.
Jim: So it’s like the dawn of AI. I mean, the original dawn of what we call AI was what 1950, when was the meeting at Dartmouth? 55? 56?
Pamela: That was 1956.
Jim: Right. So I don’t think the term artificial intelligence even existed before 1956.
Pamela: It did not.
Jim: So this was at the very, very beginning and who were the two authors you worked with?
Pamela: A man named Julian Feldman, who later went on to UC Irvine. But the other author was Edward Feigenbaum. And that led to what has been a lifetime friendship. I was just in touch with him two days ago, at a party at his house a week ago. We have been good close friends ever since. In fact, we even co authored a couple of books together later on.
Jim: Yes, including that Fifth Generation book that I mentioned when we first came on. Another quote I saw in the book, you talked about word and text understanding as a particular interest of mine, meaning yours. Could you tell us more about that? That does seem kind of natural being a word person and interested in AI.
Pamela: Well, that’s really all it is. I’ve been interested in words since I could speak and later on read, so when I came across scientists who are interested in word and text understanding, they captured me of course.
Jim: Of course that’s still a very controversial field. I just finished reading the book by Gary Marcus, Rebooting AI, and he’s going to be on the show in a few weeks. And he demonstrates at least to his own satisfaction, and I think it satisfied me as well, that the current deep learning approaches used, like for Google for their translate program, et cetera, and some of these new text writing programs from Open AI are really a very long way away from really understanding text in a way that humans do. So much of what we see are, especially from this new, big, deep learning trend is essentially very, very fancy statistical pattern matching. And it’s interesting that we have not yet really achieved anything like text understanding. To my mind, that’s the next frontier.
Pamela: It certainly is, and one of the projects I spend a lot of time writing about in the book is at MIT, a project that it takes a symbolic view, not a statistical view of what text is. But those guys say, “Hey, we are a Kitty Hawk here. We’re nowhere near where we want to be.”
Jim: Yes, indeed. And I’m involved with some of those MIT folks too. I’m on the Board of Visitors for the brain and cognitive science department at MIT, people that you mentioned, like Tommy Poggio, Tenenbaum, some of the others who are working on these symbolic type problems. They don’t get the press that the West Coast people do, but I personally believe they’re more likely to crack the actual language problem than the deep learning people are.
Pamela: Well, I think one of the interesting things AI has shown us is that understanding is a spectrum, and shallow understanding can work pretty well for most things.
Jim: And that’s true but what it doesn’t work for, and this is where Marcus is very interesting is like really understanding for instance, the gestalt of a book. What is this book? If you extract the theme of a book is something that it’s hard to see statistical approaches, shallow approaches doing, and yet I just did it when I introduced your book. Maybe I’m wrong about the theme, but at least I did extract one.
Pamela: You did. And I agree. I agree with Gary Marcus that we’re a long way from human kinds of understanding of text and language.
Jim: Yeah, the other person who I think is very interesting in this discussion is George Lakoff. He of course makes the argument that language is way more metaphorical than we tend to recognize. You say, “I’m moving ahead with this project.” Well, ahead is metaphorical from the physical moving forward or “I’m behind on this project.” Well, behind is a metaphor from something that’s behind you. And if you carefully parse your speech and look for metaphor, you go, “Oh my goodness, it’s hard to say two sentences without using metaphor.” And again, metaphor is something seemingly more subtle than the statistical approaches are likely to get at, and without understanding metaphor and how it works, it may be that we’ll have a hard time getting to real language understanding.
Pamela: I agree.
Jim: Have you read any Lakoff?
Pamela: Oh, I know George. Yes.
Jim: Oh, you do? That’s great. I never have, never met him, but I have read a number of his works. And I just think he’s one of the most interesting people we’re going to see. I might take you up on that and have you introduce me to him so I can get him on my show.
Pamela: Oh, he’d be a wonderful interviewee. Yes,
Jim: I bet he would. Another item in the book, you talked about intelligent agents and you quoted a definition that basically said they have goals, form beliefs and action plans on how to reach their goals and then they’re adaptive. Does that feel like to you what intelligence really is?
Pamela: In a very abstract sense, yes.
Jim: And it would kind of draw a line, right? I mean, how far down does intelligence go? I mean, some people argue it goes all the way down to the bacteria.
Pamela: Yes, they do. And they can make that argument pretty well. And until we can refine our notions of intelligence, which are not very fine tuned right now, I have to say, “Yeah, you’re probably right. Bacteria have intelligence. Slime molds have intelligence.”
Jim: Yep. They have problems. Whether they actually have goals or not, I don’t know. But one could say that their goals are implicitly cooked in by evolution. Their goal is to survive and reproduce essentially. That is interesting. Probably the person that appears across the book the most is Herb Simon. He pops up again and again from early to later. I love the story when you’re reading these business books. It seems like all the business academic work had been vetted by Herb Simon then you go on to discover he’s also an economist. Oh he’s a cognitive scientist, et cetera. What was he like? How could a person be a giant so many fields? What is a person like that like?
Pamela: He was an astonishing guy. Yes, the story you begin with is so true. This little typist in the business school, I keep running into this guy, Herb Simon at this, Herb Simon in Municipal of Governance, Herb Simon and I think, “God, this school of business is so shallow, this one guy appears in every field.” So I blame business, not Herb. And later on I am better acculturated into the culture of AI. That’s with two and a half years at Stanford. And I realized what a giant he is.
Pamela: Okay, next step. I’m married and go with my husband who is named the chairman of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon, where Herb Simon is. And they have a big party, welcome by the faculty to the new head kind of thing. And I stand there in front of Herb Simon, I’m so starstruck. I can’t even say hello to him. I just went, blah, blah, blah, it was funny. Anyway, we became great friends. And one of the reasons we became great friends is because he used to walk home every night after work past our house. And I would just be putting the cover on my typewriter, and I would see his hat, a beret in the summertime. Chullo, one of these Peruvian Chullos covering his head in the winter bopping past my head, and I lean out the door and I’d say, “Hey Herb, would you like a Sherry?” And Herb would almost always like a Sherry.
Pamela: So he’d come in and we’d sit down and we’d talk over Sherry, and I didn’t really understand how often we did this until I reviewed my journals for writing this book, This Could be Important. Holy mackerel, we were meeting once a week, I would have this genius and he was a genius. That’s not a word I use lightly, sitting at my coffee table and sharing Sherry with me, and we would have a high old time just laughing and going through this and that and the other.
Pamela: So one summer, I said to him, “You know, it’s really too bad.” My students, I was teaching them at the University of Pittsburgh, my students have all the really interesting discussions, what is life? What is the meaning of life? How can I live the good life, blah, blah. And what do my colleagues and I discuss? Well, should romantic poetry be two semesters or only one semester? How much can we spend on the Xerox machine? That kind of thing. And Herb laughed and he said, “Yes, I know.” He said, “You know, you might think of starting a little salon, or a little discussion group.” And that grew to something that met once a month. And I called it the Squirrel Hill Sages, because we all lived in Squirrel Hill at those days. And it consisted of Herb Simon and his wife, Dorothea. Allen Newell and his wife Noelle, the novelist Mark Harris. He was best known then for a book about baseball called Bang the Drum Slowly, his wife, a journalist, and Joe and me, and we met monthly to discuss things and so Herb and I really got to know each other even better then, and that’s how we became such good friends.
Jim: What a wonderful experience in life because from me being on the outside having read a fair amount of Herb’s work, and I put him up there is amongst the greatest polymaths of the 20th century, and he was the guy stopping in your living room, having a Sherry and hanging out with the Sages of Squirrel Hill. How lucky were you?
Pamela: How lucky was I? I actually had a graduate student to stop me in the hall once, it is somewhere in New York. It may have been Brooklyn Poly or someplace. He said, “Is it true that you had Sherry with Herb Simon once a week?” I said, “Yeah, that’s true.”
Jim: That’s amazing. I’m going to flip forward here a little bit in my topics. And let’s talk about Pittsburgh a little bit. One of the reasons that resonates with me is my daughter happens to live in Pittsburgh. In fact, she lives in Squirrel Hill, and we’ve spent more and more time up there, and I think we overlapped the summer of 1973 in Pittsburgh. I actually worked for the U.S. government as a summer job when I was an undergraduate. And I have had a pretty good reaction to Pittsburgh, but it didn’t sound like you did.
Pamela: Yeah, I really have to make the distinction between Pittsburgh as it is now and Pittsburgh as it was then. In the early 1970s, Joe and I arrived there in 1971. The steel industry was just dying and nobody knew where to go next. And a group of visionaries, mostly at Carnegie Mellon, said we can green Pittsburgh, we can make Pittsburgh something different from an industrial giant, which they saw was coming to an end. I must say most people in Pittsburgh did not see that. They thought this was just a bump. Steel would come back. Coal would come back. Well no, it wasn’t going to. So I was a Californian as you pointed out, and I rode around the Pittsburgh, the western Pennsylvania area, thinking, “How can people let places be so ugly?” I mean, there were slag heaps that nobody bothered to remove. And downtown Pittsburgh and even close to Squirrel Hill, there were warehouses that were rusted out, steel mills that were rusted out. And nobody thought they should be torn down or needed to be torn down or could be bothered with them. This was astounding to me. So that was Pittsburgh then. Pittsburgh now is a very different situation.
Jim: Yeah, it’s quite amazing how they have recovered, reinvented themselves as a technology and a medical area. As we know, Uber has their AI center there, a lot of robotics going on. Of course, CMU has been a big part of that renaissance.
Pamela: Absolutely, and Google and lots and lots of spin offs.
Jim: In fact, one of the patterns I have noticed since we’ve been going up there three or four times a year is that many of the Silicon Valley companies are opening non trivial satellite operations in Pittsburgh. And I ascertain that the reason why is that if you’re living in Silicon Valley and you’re a 32 year old engineer who married and wants to start a family, even if you’re making big Google type bucks, you’re still not going to live very well in Silicon Valley. However, if you take those big Google bucks and move to a place like Pittsburgh, you can live like a king. And apparently, that’s what they’re doing is they’re providing opportunities for people who want to have a family, have kids, have a house and a yard and those kinds of things and not have a two hour commute to be able to do it in a very commodious town of Pittsburgh. And there’s literally now thousands of people from Apple, Google and Adobe, and others that have moved to Pittsburgh and operate out of these satellite offices.
Pamela: Pittsburgh itself is in a beautiful natural setting. It’s hilly. There are three rivers that meet the earth. As any sports fan knows, it really is gorgeous. It was just badly done to in the 19th and early 20th century.
Jim: It was certainly, it was the engine of the industrial age and they paid the price. On the flip side today, Pittsburgh has about half the population that it had in 1955 but those powerful and rich industrialists invested heavily in museums and art galleries and one of the early great botanical gardens of the United States and in parks, beautiful parks. And so essentially it has the infrastructure for a city twice its size. So it’s extremely rich in cultural artifacts and organizations is what makes it kind of really interesting.
Jim: Anyway, enough about Pittsburgh. No, I’m not on the payroll of the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, but I have gotten to like the place. Hopping back a little bit, one of the really interesting things about your book is some rich and personal and evocative profiles of some of the big names of early AI, guys like Allen Newell, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Ed Feigenbaum, one I didn’t know Raj Reddy, and of course Herb. I love those. But I would also say maybe that indicates that you have a perspective of a great man version of the story of AI. Do you think that’s true? Are there really great men who are qualitatively deeper than most of the other people or are really just at the right place at the right time?
Pamela: Oh, boy. That’s a chicken and egg problem. I was lucky to know these very great intellects. But would it have happened anyway? Yeah, it probably would have happened anyway, because when you look around at papers in the 1940s, I’m talking about academic papers. Everybody has this muzzy kind of idea. Hey, I think this thing is kind of thinking, this computer thing. It’s just that these guys took it and made something of it scientifically.
Jim: Yep, another one of the people who in my mind is an absolute giant of computer science and AI, Allen Newell.
Jim: Tell me a little bit about him. What was he like?
Pamela: Oh, Allen. I should have been as in awe of Allen at that faculty party I mentioned, as I was of Herb, but Allen didn’t have quite the reputation that Herb did, at least in my mind. I was wrong of course. Allen was an amazing guy. He was the son of a San Francisco physician, academic physician I might say, and had been brought up in very comfortable circumstances, and did not want to be a doctor like his dad, ended up after college at the RAND Corporation doing logistics and things like that. And then he met Herb Simon, and Herb and he discovered that neither of them wanted to use the computer as any type of numerical calculator. They wanted to use it as a symbolic machine.
Pamela: And they were very much alone in that way. I don’t mean totally alone. There were of course, other people around the country who felt that way, a handful. And so these two together made a tremendous team. Allen himself was very cordial, very lovely, full of fun. Oh my gosh, he had a wonderful sense of humor. He was very affectionate and very, very hard working. Oh my, you would get email from well, email. We didn’t call it email in those days. We called it ARPA messages but you would get messages from him at three in the morning because that’s when he was working. Not that he’d quit. He’d been working since after supper. Really, really a lovely man and he loved literature. So he and I often had talks about books we loved, and he and his wife Noel would read aloud to each other at night, and a couple of times I interrupted them for one reason or another and they were reading aloud. Okay, Pamela, what do you want and go away?
Jim: Wow, amazing. Another one of the great brains from that era that you got to know pretty well. Now, you also got to know people in a more professional capacity through a quite important early book that you wrote called Machines Who Think. And now one of the interesting things when I see that title is the word who.
Jim: Tell me about that a little bit.
Pamela: I was writing the first modern history of artificial intelligence, and casting around for a title as you do with books, and what am I going to call this book so it will leap off the shelf, blah, blah. And it was Joe Traub, my husband who said, “Don’t call it machines that think, call it machines who think.”, because we were both under the influence of the idea that the thinking that machines were doing, the thinking that humans were doing were very, very similar. And I must confess, I was also under the influence of Marvin Minsky, who called people meat machines, M-E-A-T machines. And I felt, “Yeah, machines who think, we’re all thinking.”
Jim: I thought that was very, very clever. That book had a little bit of a difficult history getting signed. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Pamela: Oh, gosh, yes, I had an agent. And my agent took the proposal to various publishers and the replies were in retrospect, absolutely hilarious. It was, we’ve already done a book on computers or gee, interesting, too bad it’s too late. I never knew what that meant. And is she kidding? Essentially, that was is she kidding? And you could hardly blame them. Artificial intelligence was in a very nascent state at that point. But still, if authors are going to call themselves canaries in the coal mine, they need to pay attention to what’s happening right now, and nobody wanted to do that. So yeah, I went to 30 some publishers before we finally got signed by the publishing arm of Scientific American.
Jim: And what year would that have been for our audience?
Pamela: It actually came out in 1979.
Jim: But it was signed what? 77, maybe?
Pamela: 77, 78, something like that, yeah.
Jim: It’s still hard to imagine that 77, we had lots of computers out there that nobody in publishing was interested in a serious history of AI or you had to go to 36 of them before you found one to say yes. That’s hard to believe.
Pamela: Even worse, in my view. Historians of science weren’t interested in the field. Can you believe that?
Jim: That is amazing. I wonder what things that are happening now that are going to be unbelievably important in the future that we are ignoring.
Pamela: We hear them now. But I did ask one historian of science much later, “Where were you guys?” And she said, “We really didn’t know if it would be important.”, another reason I named the book what I did.
Jim: Interesting. I like that. Another interesting, really landmark historical event that you write about is I don’t believe you were there but maybe you were, Simon and Newell’s Logic Theorist.
Pamela: This was the first working program to do something, which if humans did it, we’d say that’s intelligent behavior. It was very much in the symbolic arm of AI. It didn’t look at tons of data. It wasn’t machine learning, there was no such thing then. This was something figuring out what to do next, by reason of reason, by using reason.
Jim: It was able actually to improve upon some of the earlier mathematical proofs by even quite famous mathematicians as I recall.
Pamela: Yes, that’s right. And interestingly, logicians, professional logicians looked at it and they said, “Oh well, you know, this isn’t so hot. We can create a machine that can do logic better than that.”, completely missing the point that Newell and Simon weren’t interested in creating a killer logic machine. They were interested in modeling human behavior. They were both cognitive psychologists. That was their mission.
Jim: Definitely an important milestone in the very earliest history. It’s amazing how early it was, it was in the late 50s sometime, right?
Pamela: 56, they came to the Dartmouth conference with this working program.
Jim: That’s amazing. Back to Two Cultures again, one of the little stories that leaped out to me that I suspect is strongly interwoven with C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures is you were not approved for tenure when you came up for tenure at the University of Pittsburgh. Here you were, a successful author, which had three books out at that point. You had a contract for another perhaps. And I’m sure that that scene must have struck you as particularly odd at the time. How much do you think the Two Cultures problem was part of that?
Pamela: Oh, I think it was very much a Two Cultures problem, because tenure decisions are usually, they’re supposed to be secret, but of course, they’re quite leaky. And I heard leaks saying, “She’s sold out to the machines. She thinks machines are going to think. She doesn’t belong in an English department.” And maybe they were right.
Jim: It might have been the best thing that ever happened to you.
Pamela: In fact, it was because it sent us to New York City when we lived in New York just rapturously for 40 years.
Jim: Yes. And where Joe Traub, who I know or knew. He’s departed now, a wonderful human being. And again, the other part of the thing in the book, probably not to talk about too much is that the book is also a love story about Pamela and Joe. Joe basically was brought to Columbia to rebuild their computer science department or to start it from scratch.
Pamela: Start it. Columbia was Ivy League and the Ivy Leagues were the last really to do computer science formally.
Jim: And that got you out of Pittsburgh, and if not back to California, at least into the big time.
Pamela: Sure did.
Jim: That sounds like you lived quite the life in New York also.
Pamela: Oh, it was a wonderful life.
Jim: What were some of the cultural high points in your mind?
Pamela: Well, we both adored the performing arts. So we were at the opera, and we were at the theater, and so on and so forth. And later, Joe thought we should stop being such amateurs at this. So he signed us up for courses at Juilliard for music and courses at the Museum of Modern Art for art. I don’t think I would have but I was really glad he did it. And it was just wonderful, just wonderful. And of course, our friendships went across all kinds of disciplines because of that. And I, of course, was in various literary circles because I was an officer of PEN, the authors’ organization, the freedom to write, freedom of expression and ran into most of the great and the near great there as far as authors were concerned. And believe me, I was considered really weird writing about this thing called artificial intelligence. Yeah, very, very interesting but weird.
Jim: Interesting. And then you had some other kinds of pushback, which I found interesting from your book. The one I found most startling was Arno Penzias, if I got his name right, the Nobel Prize winner from Bell Labs who detected the radio signal remnant from the Big Bang, the famous three degree Kelvin microwave background, one of the great experimental discoveries of the 20th century, and yet he seemed to be foaming on the topic that computers can think. Tell us about that.
Pamela: Foaming is just the word. I can’t tell this on the air. You can scratch it out if it doesn’t work.
Jim: I say absolutely anything. You know me so go right ahead.
Pamela: Yeah, he called me one morning before I was even up. Joe got me up and said, “Phone for you. It’s Arno.” We knew Arno, socially, and there is Arno Penzias on the phone. “Pamela, I just read this book of yours.” And he went on for half an hour, telling me why machines could never ever, ever think and how I had wasted three or four years of my life writing this book, and blah, blah, blah, and on and on. And finally, after half an hour where I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I finally said to him, “Arno, Arno, I know you’re a married man. You got me out of bed. I haven’t even been to the bathroom yet.”
Jim: Oh, my goodness. I mean, and here’s [crosstalk 00:37:45] and here’s a giant of science, right? And you would think that he would not react this way. But there does seem to be and you bring these stories up again and again, where people almost feel pretty personally affronted by the idea.
Pamela: You’ve got it. They really took it personally, for better or for worse.
Jim: Yeah, that is interesting. And are these a legacy of the old chain of being, that goes back to the Middle Ages with humans near the top right below the angels, right? Because that’s one of the things I’ve always frankly loved about AI. I’d love to have some other intelligent entity to talk to besides just people.
Pamela: It’s not funny. You and I feel the same. I would love another mind around. Smarter than me, fine. Hey, I got friendships with Newell and Simon. I have friendships with McCarthy and Feigenbaum and Minsky. I know that smarter human beings than me exist and it was always wonderful to be around them. Smarter machines, fine. Let’s talk.
Jim: I think what would be cool would be the alienness of their minds, most likely, right? If we’re to achieve artificial general intelligence, I suspect it relatively unlikely to be a mind very much like a human mind. And that would be interesting.
Pamela: Yeah, and I don’t even know if that’s true. It may be that we don’t recognize anything that isn’t quite like our minds. I don’t know.
Jim: I don’t know. It will be interesting to find out here over the next somewhere between 10 and 200 years. It is interesting how actually I talked to one of the world’s leading experts on artificial general intelligence just this week, he actually stopped by and we chatted for a few hours, a guy named Ben Goertzel. In fact, he’s the one that coined the expression artificial general intelligence. And he was saying that the Open AI guys who recently got a billion dollar investment from Microsoft are now claiming that artificial general intelligence, i.e. a human style of intelligence is less than five years away.
Pamela: Oh, my.
Jim: He personally didn’t believe it. And he is the leading thinker in my opinion on artificial general intelligence, but these are non trivial people, and they talked Microsoft out of $1 billion. And Microsoft is not a shabby bunch of thinkers. They’re famously hard ass when it comes to the business. So I don’t know. Maybe it’s quicker, maybe it’s even shorter than 10 years, it certainly will be an interesting, a very interesting time. It’s an area I follow quite closely. And I think, frankly, guys, we’re just saying part of it is just this libido to talk to somebody else. It’s one of the themes here on the show, probably half of our show, at least one of the topics I talked with a guest on is the Fermi paradox, which is, hey, where are the aliens right out in space? And I think that comes from the same motivation. Many of us hope we can find aliens just so we can talk to them, see what they know.
Pamela: And we don’t feel particularly threatened by them. Hey, let’s sit down and have a beer together.
Jim: Well, maybe we should. In fact, one of the arguments right now is the discussion around. METI. There’s SETI, which is a search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which has been going on for 60 years. In fact, one of our recent guests on the show was Jill Tarter, the world’s historical leading researcher in search for extraterrestrial intelligence. She’s now retired, but we had a wonderful, wonderful talk about the search. And then there’s METI, the messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence, which is hugely controversial. People like Hawking, he says, “This is the stupidest thing we could possibly do, which is to yell to the universe, ‘We’re here. Come eat this.'” Time will tell, right?
Pamela: Well, he felt the same way about AI. So what can you say?
Jim: Yeah, we’ll revisit that one, this idea of summoning the demon. Before we do that, one more reach out into this Two Cultures theme. Another book you wrote, which I did not know you had wrote, but I’m going to go back to get it, read it is Aaron’s Code, which in short is the story about an artist who used computers to generate art. Tell us about that.
Pamela: Well, not computers so much, because there’s a lot of computer generated art these days. And there was even as he, well, not so much as he began, but certainly it existed. Anything that could be scanned and printed on a plotter was counted as art in those days. And Harold Cohen, the artist we’re talking about, wanted to know what the decision process of an artist was. And since he knew about these cognitive scientists who were thinking about modeling human thought, could he model the thought of an artist, the thinking processes, and so that was really his reason for doing it. He didn’t particularly want to make art that way. He wanted to model the process that an artist goes through when he makes an image. Well, that’s putting it in a capsule form, but that was what he did. And I look now at tons of computer generated art and I celebrate it. I think it’s wonderful. The computer is really become a wonderful medium for art. But nobody, as far as I can see, has done what Harold did, which is to say, “Let me sit down and model my own artistic, making the art making behavior.” And that’s what he did.
Jim: It sounds like it would be a great project for a CMU graduate student to go find a really good and thoughtful artist and essentially be a domain expert and create an expert system for art using today’s modern tools. I’m sure they could accomplish a heck of a lot more.
Pamela: They might be able to. For all I know, someone’s doing it.
Jim: So anyway, back to the second Two Cultures theme. I imagine there must have been some kickback from the artistic community about both Harold and you writing about it.
Pamela: Strangely enough, no.
Pamela: The reason why is nobody paid any attention to it, and no one knew what I was talking about. It just fell into the void.
Jim: Interesting. So the humanities, the writing people, they took a front center front, but the artists were so far out in their own world, they just took no notice of it.
Pamela: Yes, exactly right. And partly, it was my fault because I didn’t have the vocabulary for explaining what Harold was doing, until I got to the Santa Fe Institute. And there was this wonderful vocabulary all laid out for me. Well, I just published the book. I couldn’t unwrite the book. So too bad. If I’d known that, it would have been a different book.
Jim: It’s like I have to go back and read it. It sounds like an interesting topic. Next topic, which you alluded to a little bit earlier, which is concerns about artificial intelligence. An interesting book I read, I don’t know when it came out was Tegmark’s Life 3.0, where he talked biological evolution, cultural evolution, technological evolution and talks about the singularity and the risks that go with it. Of course, there are people more extreme than Tegmark. He’s pretty thoughtful and balanced. But you have people like Bostrom and Elon Musk and others who are absolutely convinced, or at least they say that they’re absolutely convinced that, “Hey, we got to slow down, we got to stop. We’re summoning the demon.” You talked a little bit about this in the book. What do you think about this?
Pamela: Let me say my own views first. My own view is that AI is probably one of the most powerful sciences/technologies to come along in human history. A powerful science/technology has the potential to do great good, and it has the potential to do great harm. So you can swing on one side or the other and say, “No, it will be great.” Or you can take the Elon Musk, et cetera view. “It’s terrible. And we’ve got to stop it.” I don’t take… well, no, I hold both views actually contradictory though they may be. And this is what human intelligence is about, is being able to hold contradictorial ideas in your head. It could be horrible, it could be fabulous. And unless we’re careful, it could be very destructive.
Jim: It certainly seems that will be disruptive. Whether it will be destructive, I think I’m with you is an open question, and then perhaps a lot of it’s going to be based on the choices that we make. In the short term, there’s two roads, which are interesting, one good and one not so good. One is where if indeed, many jobs are filled by robots and AIs. If we’re wise, this could be a new era of leisure. We could not be working 50, 55 hour weeks. We could actually be working on things that are really meaningful, self actualization, working on art, working on our hobbies, working on our relationships, working in our communities. And that would be a wonderful outcome from the replacement of a fair amount of work, but it would require some new institutional arrangements like these universal basic income ideas that are being talked about right now. I think it’s quite interesting that Andrew Yang is talking about it at the level of the presidential primaries.
Pamela: Absolutely, and not getting laughed off the stage.
Jim: And last night, not at all. The other people were talking about it for the first time and say, “This might be a good idea.”, and whether that’s exactly the right form, but at least that’s the idea. Now, the other side, the bad side, what I’d call the Neo-feudalist side is if it turns out these AI eyes, most of the values captured by a small number of plutocrats and are used to just make ever wider the gap between the working people of the world and the capitalists, then this will be a very bad thing. People will be forced down to very marginal jobs, mostly personal service, cleaning toilets, giving massages, whatever to make a living, while a tiny percentage, the .01% are basically reaping all the benefits of this amazing increase in productivity. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending how you think about it, it’s up to us, the people to insist that our democratic processes make this short term productivity gain and replacement of work work for everybody. But if we don’t, it won’t, I think so. People need to take this very seriously when they think about their political decisions going forward. I mean, doesn’t that make a lot of sense?
Pamela: It makes perfect sense to me. I like to divide up into work and tasks. The world has lots and lots of tasks that go undone because people are busy making a living, and a lot of that making a living is busy work. It’s tap dancing, as a friend of mine calls it. And it’s really not very gratifying for human beings. If we let human beings loose on the tasks that needed to be done, and compensate them for those very important tasks, like looking after children, looking after the elderly, so on and so forth, wow what a world this could be.
Jim: Yep. But Andrew Yang made that point. He gave the example of his wife, who stays home to take care of their two children, one of whom is autistic. And that number, that real work does not appear in our GDP. And yet it’s real work that adds tremendous value to the lives of real people.
Pamela: Yes, exactly right. And you can multiply that many times.
Jim: Yeah, and we’ll see if we are wise enough to steer our economy and our politics in that direction. We shall see as this next election will be quite interesting. The next level of risk that people talk about, one that’s gotten a lot of attention, I started to laughingly call the emperor of paper clips, the example that somebody accidentally tells the world’s first artificial general intelligence to maximize the output of a paperclip factory. And this AI takes it literally and decides to kill all the people and convert their material into material to make paper clips, eventually turn the earth into paper clips, invent interstellar rockets, so it can go and turn all the stars into paper clips.
Jim: This is the cartoon version of the artificial general intelligence run amok. And there is some risk in that area, though I suspect it may be less than people think, because they anthropomorphize AIs all the way back to ELIZA. They think that they’re more human than they are and there’s no reason unless it’s built in that a computer ought to have a will for power, for instance or the equivalent even of an ego, but one could accidentally make it happen. But before the emperor paperclips becomes a problem, I’m much more concerned about bad people armed with powerful but sub-AGI artificial general intelligence, AIs and ones that come to mind very strikingly is China. It strikes me that if we continue on the road we’re on, the Chinese are going to be inventing something new, very substantially based on AI, which is a dictatorship of the pervasiveness and power that George Orwell, even with his amazing imagination, could never have conceived. And this is going to be a very scary thing.
Pamela: It is indeed and I think you’re quite right. I would like to say we’ve had a literary warning. It was called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Remember that story where the sorcerer leaves somebody to get a drink water from the well? Anyway, we know this can happen. We can’t let it happen. We mustn’t let it happen. And the fact that a very different culture with very different ideals is coming up fast in the AI field, it should give us pause.
Jim: Yeah, I was very pleased to see that you came down on the side of course, people in the United States need to be working on AI for national defense. If I read you correctly, because this is a current big bugaboo out in Silicon Valley on people at Google saying, “We don’t want to work on defense.” And they’ve actually chosen not to compete for some contracts and not renewed others. While other players, Microsoft and Amazon in particular, have been quite straightforward at making their expertise available to our military, particularly with China and to a lesser degree, Russia potentially in a position to try to achieve a dominant position through their work in AI. It strikes me as a exceedingly foolish for us to unilaterally disarm.
Pamela: Jim, I am not a pacifist. I am here on this earth because people I will never know sacrifice their lives for me. That’s the story of my mother with a tarpaulin between her and the night giving birth to me, people were up in the sky trying to protect her. It would be immensely hypocritical of me to say, “Oh, that’s okay. Let’s be pacifists.” No, I can’t. And this is not a world where we can be. At the same time, I really understand how grievous it feels that something you do a might be used in a way that you so disagree with. I understand that. I sympathize with it. But in my view, I want the smartest people and the smartest machines on my side, please.
Jim: Yep, I’m 100% with you, and I think our opinion is perhaps a minority opinion amongst the Silicon Valley-ites.
Pamela: Hey, I’ve been a minority for most of my life, it’s okay.
Jim: I hear that. And I want to pivot a little bit to something else. Another theme that was woven through your book, which is feminism. There’s quite a lot about feminism here and there throughout the book. And I’ve said more than once that it’s my personal view, that when the historians look back from 2,000 years in the future and look at the 20th century, they’re not going to say that World War Two was the most significant thing nor the atomic weapon or landing a man on the moon or the internet, but rather the beginnings of the overthrow of the patriarchy, which I put approximately at 1975 we’re finally starting to get momentum. But you’ve lived that life.
Jim: I mean, you’re a bit older than I am. We’re both old God damn it, but you go back a few more years to where there was just the most blatant kinds of grotesque sexism. I remember reading the memoir of one of my heroes Sandra Day O’Connor. Here, she was a top graduate of the Stanford Law School who had to take a job as a secretary because no one would hire her as a lawyer. I mean, what the hell, that sort of thing was gone by the time I graduated from college in 75, not to say that there still wasn’t a vast amount of sexism and the patriarchy, but at least that kind of the most grotesque in your face unapologetic sort was over. Tell me a little bit about your journeys with feminism. Where it’s headed? Where are we?
Pamela: Well, good question. Yeah, when you’re in the middle of the revolution, it’s really hard to tell where things are going. Yes, I got out of college with a degree from a decent university, the University of California at Berkeley, and nobody wanted to know that. They wanted to know how fast I could type. So any job I went for was always based on how fast I could type. And I tried and tried to get out of that mindset and I couldn’t until finally, I went to work at Stanford for Ed Feigenbaum. And what do you know? Yeah, he wanted me to type. I was his assistant. Somebody had to write the letters. But he also was really eager for me to know what was going on, and sent me around from place to place on the campus. So I would learn about computing, in general, artificial intelligence in particular. And it was from that, that I left that job and went to graduate school.
Pamela: Once in graduate school and out of graduate school, I entered a slightly different world that had changed socially. And it had changed for me because I had now two degrees. No, those were very bad days, and they were days of long standing. I can’t imagine when it was different. I look back in history and you just see the patriarchy is in full swing and nobody even questions, very few people question. So I realized, no that’s just giving me too much credit. Somewhere along the way, very late in my romance with artificial intelligence, I realized that one of the things that made me so fascinated by it was that it would be a kind of intelligence that wasn’t a white male, shall I have said? It would be different. Now, that was a very naive view of how AI is created. But that was what I hope for is that this intelligence would step away from the patriarchy and say, “You’re going about it all wrong. This is a better way.” I didn’t know that consciously until 20, 30 years into my romance with AI, but there it is, and what do you know? It may happen? Meanwhile, it has taken some very brave women to stand up and say, “This is wrong. You can’t treat me this way. You must be treat me this way. And I’m not going to be quiet about it.”
Jim: Nice one. But one of the greatest things that happened, particularly in the West in the last quarter of the 20th century, was finally women stood up and said, “We’re not taking it anymore.” And at least some men supported that. And it took both, right?
Pamela: I was married to a man who was absolutely feminist. That’s one of the reasons the marriage lasted as long as it did. We were married for almost half a century. And he was so supportive of everything I did, if anything more than supportive. I used to laugh, “You’re like my stage mother. Come on, give me a break.” But no, he was so eager for me to have the kind of recognition he thought I deserved. It was wonderful. And he had his own very important career in science and academic administration. So it wasn’t that he was making substitute of me. He just didn’t think it was fair.
Jim: That was great. I was fortunate, especially in having grown up in the 50s and early 60s, that my parents, despite being uneducated working class type folks had a remarkably egalitarian marriage. If I suppose you woke my father up at three o’clock in the morning and said, “Hey Herbie, are you head of the household?” He might have said yes, but they never acted that way. Every decision they made was collective. My mother was always in charge of finance, doing the taxes, dealing with bankers, et cetera. Why? Because she was a shitload smarter on things quantitative than he was. And he was absolutely happy to have her do it. And as I said, never saw them make any decision of any sort other than jointly. And that was actually a very good influence on my own life. I think I came to appreciate the fact that the patriarchy was an idiotic idea earlier than some.
Pamela: Perhaps so. I can’t say I was raised in such a family. In fact, my father was an old fashioned European patriarch, and as a consequence, he raised two warrior daughters. I mean we’re both warriors. Yeah, he was very proud with us, very happy with us, so there you go.
Jim: It’s interesting. And of course, the world has made a fair amount of progress since. Some of the things that are very encouraging is that almost 60% of college graduates are now women, even at the most elite professional programs, Harvard Law, the leading medical schools, almost exactly 50-50. Membership in these prestigious graduate programs and professional programs, which tend to be gateways to the professions and into elite positions in our society. But interestingly, one area where this is not true is in AI or computer science in general.
Pamela: Computer science in general, I would say yes. NYU did a study and has the numbers, perhaps 15% of papers written and so on and so forth, talks given, are written by women in AI and it shouldn’t be 15%. It should be 50%.
Jim: Do you think it really should be 50.
Pamela: Why not?
Jim: I wonder. It’s interesting that Harvard Law and the Harvard Business School and Johns Hopkins, they’re 50-50 these days, but maybe there are enough differences between men and women that when given full freedom, and no longer constrained by the patriarchy for whatever reason, they make different career choices. The example that’s thrown out, I’m not sure it’s quite compelling, but it’s certainly indicative is that in Sweden, which is probably the most gender egalitarian society that’s ever existed on Earth, the percentage of men in engineering is actually higher than it is in the United States. And the percentage of women in nursing is actually higher than it is in the United States. So even once the bridle of the patriarchy is thrown off, it may well be possible that the genders have different things that they’re interested in, or maybe that they’re good at. It’s at least possible.
Pamela: It’s at least possible but we won’t know for 100 years. It would take that long to just get rid of all the excess nonsense that has pervaded for millennia.
Jim: Is there any reason one would think there would be more nonsense in computer science than say in law or medicine?
Pamela: I did a study on that, actually on Silicon Valley, a preliminary study for the National Science Foundation a few years ago with a friend and a partner. And what we discovered was that men really made it hard for women to be in that field, just in every way possible, in every unpleasant way possible. I don’t mean sexual harassment. I mean diminishing them, denigrating them in every way possible. And I know women of my generation who said, “Who needs this? I’ll go do something else. There’s a woman in my life, middle aged woman now, who got a CS degree from one of the top universities, came out, was doing great until she ran up against this social stuff in computing. And she was gradually funneled into human resources and things like that. And she looked at me one day and she said, “Didn’t I fight hard enough?” And I said, “It has nothing to do with you personally, it’s systemic. You need millions to fight hard enough, not just you.”
Jim: We shall see. Certainly, one could hope to get rid of anything like that where there is opposition to talented women coming into a field. It won’t happen overnight. As you said, it will be 100 years. I hope it’s shorter than that, but-
Pamela: I hope it’s shorter than that.
Jim: It’s every year hopefully getting a little better. And then we’ll see. Are there just sort of built in differences between men and women and what they’re interested in, or has it been something else?
Pamela: Well, I’m going to look at a continuum, there are people who are really good at raising kids. And they are mostly maybe, well, I don’t know, mostly women. I like to not to have children. I just decided I’d rather be a full time writer, and the number of women who came to me and said, “I love my kids. But if I had to do it over again, I’d have done what you did.” Well, that was surprising. I really thought I was a little island all by myself. But it’s so ingrained in us that the women will raise, have and raise the children that maybe we need to think about that a little more.
Jim: And I get well, particularly on that one, it’s going to take more time. And I do think the most important first step, which we’ve now mostly taken is that either gender should be able to do whatever they want, even if it’s extremely low probability historically. For instance, probably the last legal sexism was finally repealed in the United States in the last couple of years, which is that women are now able to be infantry officers in the Marine Corps. That’s a brutal job that requires great physical strength, a murderous intent and a bunch of other things, which at least historically, and culturally haven’t been highly associated with what women like to do. But nonetheless, as soon as they open the doors, a bunch of women raised their hands and said, “Yeah, I’d like to be a Marine Corps infantry officer.”, and they’ve gone through the schools and the fair percentage of them have succeeded and qualified, and there are now officers in the Marine Corps leading men and women in the mud, killing people when necessary, et cetera. And even if it turns out that it’s never more than 3% or 4% strikes me as morally absolutely essential that anyone who wants to do something like that be able to do so.
Pamela: I couldn’t agree more.
Jim: But on the other hand, it wouldn’t bother me or surprise me, frankly, if only a very small percentage of women actually want to do it. So anyway, you live through with kind of the big piece of this story, which has by no means ended yet. It will be very interesting to see how it plays out over the next couple of generation.
Pamela: Yeah, I see it with young girls, I see, they have no idea what I’m talking about. And for that, I say, “Thank God, you should not know what this was like. It was awful.” Classified ads, jobs for women, jobs for men, all that stuff. And I would like to say that the last legal barrier has not been breached, and that is we don’t have an equal rights amendment.
Jim: That is annoying. That’s at least a negative and a hole that needs to be fixed. It amazes me that that has not been reintroduced. That would be relatively well, I don’t know. But yeah, I absolutely agree with you that the Equal Rights Amendment needs to be enacted as a catch all or non-necessarily legislative discrimination. The Marine Corps ban on women officers was a positive block on women. But the Equal Rights Amendment would provide a mechanism to get rid of a bunch of less codified but still real impediments on women’s ability to move forward in the world, perhaps most famously on equal pay for equal work.
Pamela: For example.
Jim: Yes, there’s still a lot of work to be done. And I hope we as a society continue to do that work. Well, Pamela, this has been great. It’s been everything I was hoping it would be. And I’d like to repeat again to the audience, you should read this book. Pamela’s new book, This Could Be Important: My Life with the Artificial Intelligentsia. You’ll enjoy it. If you like a good read, you’ll learn something, and it will by no means be a waste of time.
Pamela: Thanks very much, Jim.Speaker 3: Production services and audio editing by Jared James Consulting, music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.