Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Garbage in garbage out

All small children are strange, and I wasn't less strange than most. When I was about eight I went through a phase of worrying that, if God woke me up in the night and asked me what I most wanted, like he did with Solomon, I would be too confused to say "wisdom" and would instead say "chocolate... no, no, wisdom!" but it would be too late and God would give me loads of chocolate but very little respect.

I told a friend about this childhood yearning for wisdom one evening as we sat at Combination on a Sunday night, after High Table in college. I can't remember what in the conversation led up to this, but I assume that the wines served with dinner might have had something to do with it. "Well," he said, "here you are." And gestured round at our surroundings. I laughed, and then had to stop myself quickly when I realised that he did actually mean it. We were sat around the table which doubles for use in governing body meetings, lit only by a couple of candelabra; not one but two port decanters were circulating to the left and the atmosphere was pretty convivial. High Table attracts a certain type of College Fellow, especially on Sunday nights after Evensong -- not religious, often very anti-religious, but traditional. I was usually the only woman there, unless the president or one of the guests had brought in a wife, and on the whole I was not much more than half the average age. At the time the college was engaged in a horrible and incomprensible dispute triggered by a newcomer taking up a senior position. One of the men around that table had recently told me that the incomer's (unspecified) behaviour could only be explained if he was truly evil; another was using the split to try to settle a long-standing score with an old rival, startlingly ineptly; the fellow who had started the whole thing with a formal complaint was someone whom I would still on the whole describe as sensible. It was very nasty at the time, and in retrospect I see it as a learning experience about human nature, like watching Big Brother. But that's why I laughed when my friend suggested that I had, by winning a place in that company, visibly achieved wisdom.

Nonetheless there was certainly a lot of intelligence in that room. (Especially if you define intelligence as a propensity to a certain sort of stupidity.) It would be fascinating to know how many of those middle-aged men would have agreed with my friend in equating the college's fellowship with wisdom, and how many would have found the concept intrinsically risible like I did. I've been reading up on artificial intelligence a bit recently, and what has startled me about it is the willingness of physicists to put forwards definitive theoretical pronouncements about the nature of human intelligence. I think I may now need to read up on ideas of what "intelligence" is, as a way of strengthening my mind against blind acceptance of their assumptions. But it's interesting, and a bit of a relief, that no one seems to be talking about artificial wisdom. What would it take to build a computer that could say comforting things to the bereaved? Could it be taught to do that, or would it have to learn, and would it first have to be itself capable of suffering?

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