Two linguistics professors & an AI company head walk into a bar…

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Two professors of linguistics and the director of a science and tech company walk into a bar and start to talk about artificial intelligence (AI).

That’s a variant of the usual joke about three men or women who enter a drinking spot and say or do something that raises a smile and simultaneously addresses a complex issue. Usually, the people who gathered in the bar will belong to different nationalities, cultures or professions.

With everyone so worried about insanely clever robots, it’s but natural that the two linguistics professors and the director of the science and tech company will have walked into the bar, whipped out a mobile phone and dictated an article to

I haven’t heard that joke – maybe there isn’t one – but we do, at least, have the article Noam Chomsky, Ian Roberts and Jeffrey Watumull wrote about ChatGPT.

It’s titled The False Promise of ChatGPT, appeared in the NYT (paywall) and it’s not a joke.

In fact, it’s a compelling examination of why the fears of humans – that they will be replaced by wired clever clogs – is entirely misplaced.

Dr Chomsky, Dr Roberts and Dr Watumull address the rising concerns that machine learning, “the most popular and fashionable strain of AI…will degrade our science and debase our ethics by incorporating into our technology a fundamentally flawed conception of language and knowledge”.

These fears are irrational, they say. Such programmes may be useful “in some narrow domains (they can be helpful in computer programming, for example, or in suggesting rhymes for light verse) [but] we know from the science of linguistics and the philosophy of knowledge that they differ profoundly from how humans reason and use language”.

The human mind is not, like ChatGPT, a “statistical engine” but “a surprisingly efficient and even elegant system that operates with small amounts of information”. It seeks “to create explanations”. Human intelligence, they write, is able “to say not only what is the case, what was the case and what will be the case — that’s description and prediction — but also what is not the case and what could and could not be the case. Those are the ingredients of explanation, the mark of true intelligence”.

They also made two further points about true intelligence. It is demonstrated in “the ability to think and express improbable but insightful things” and it is “capable of moral thinking”.

Dr Chomsky, Dr Roberts and Dr Watumull should know. The first two are highly regarded professors of linguistics. The third is a director of artificial intelligence at a science and technology company. Their piece – by turns comforting, common sense and flattering – should quiet some of the more hyperbolic fears about the great AI takeover.

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