Douglas Hofstadter and Me

(by Jeffrey S. Rosenthal, September 2002)

As a child, I was very interested in the question of whether computers could be taught to "think" as humans do, to be "intelligent" and "creative" instead of just "following direct instructions". Naturally, such questions are not well-defined, so I was also interested in the fundamental question of what it means to think, and how one can tell whether or not a computer is actually thinking.

Since I was just a child, and since these questions are essentially unsolvable under the best of circumstances, my research never progressed too far. However, I did avidly read about the subject. Everything from Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach", to Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett's "The Mind's I", to books and essays by John Searle, Raymond Smullyan, Joseph Weizenbaum, Marvin Minsky, and others, not to mention Alan Turing's original 1950 article "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" about his famous "Turing test" for deciding (based on mimicry) whether or not a computer can think.

As I aged and became an academic, I continued to think somewhat about these matters. I took a philosophy course "Minds and Machines" taught by Alasdair Urquhart at the University of Toronto. I occasionally saw talks about whether computers can think. But at the same time, my thinking about computers was gradually shifting from abstract hypotheticals about what computers might someday be able to do, to more practical questions of operating systems, computer programming, numerical simulations, and other things that computers can do. Questions about thinking computers gradually receded into the background.

I remember once being in a shopping mall, and needing to find a washroom. I looked around and saw no sign indicating where one might be. However, some distance away I saw a small hallway that was very plain looking, without any shops or advertisements or displays. I immediately thought, that must the the hallway to the washroom, and sure enough it was. I then pondered the fact that no one had ever "taught" me that plain hallways in malls often lead to washrooms, nor had I ever actively thought about the issue, I had just subconsciously learned this information well enough that I could easily apply it to a practical situation. And I thought of how many thousands and thousands of such "tips" we all learn and use so easily without apparent effort. I was struck (once again) by how complex human reasoning really is, and how difficult it would be for a computer ever to have similar abilities to learn and apply such a diversity of observations.

Despite my growing skepticism, issues about thinking computers had occupied a significant portion of my early learning and analysis, and they still held a special place in my heart. Thus I was excited and fascinated when I learned that Douglas Hofstadter himself was giving some talks at the University of Toronto. Hofstadter was one of the "thinking computers authors" I had read the most, and most often agreed with. His writing, in addition to being witty and entertaining, always seemed to accurately and wisely identify (though not solve!) the key issues involved in a debate.

It so happened that I was about to go on a research trip, and would have to miss most of Hofstadter's Toronto talks. However, his first talk (on March 9, 2000) was more specialised, to be given jointly with a young physicist to a "math alumni" gathering. This talk was not well publicised, so only about 50 people attended. And since it was just before I had to leave on my trip, I was one of them.

I actually arrived slightly late for some reason. I slipped in, and saw a fiftyish-looking man lecturing at the front. I wasn't sure at first if it was Hofstadter or his physicist collaborator. I did a quick calculation and thought that Hofstadter had co-authored The Mind's I about twenty years earlier, and had perhaps been a young thirty-something professor at the time, so the lecturer could indeed be him (though I had expected someone older). And sure enough, it was.

I actually didn't find the topic of the talk that interesting. It was about some subtle mathematical equations, but they didn't really have any theoretical results about them, just some computer simulations. But it was still interesting, of course, to see Hofstadter in action.

After the talk, the organiser invited anyone who wanted to join the speakers for lunch, so I did! I figured that I couldn't miss the opportunity to exchange a few quick words with a childhood idol.

While the group was collecting and walking towards the university cafeteria, I managed to slide up near Hofstadter and quickly introduce myself. I was nervous and must have mumbled as I said I was from the Department of Statistics, because he said "Which department?" and I had to repeat it. (I still found it interesting that he, being so inter-disciplinary, was immediately interested in what department someone was from.) I managed to ask him briefly about something from his talk, and that question went fine. I also mentioned that it was a pleasure to meet him since, like many people of "my generation", I had grown up reading The Mind's I and Godel Escher Bach. (As soon as I said that it sounded a bit dopey, especially the part about my "generation", but no great harm came.)

At this point I felt that I had succeeded, admirably, in my mission to exchange a few words with Hofstadter. I was satisfied and could have left at that point. But of course I didn't, instead continuing along with the crowd towards the cafeteria, to see what else might occur.

I found myself, quite by accident, standing next to Hofstadter in the cafeteria line. Some other people were talking with him some, but not too much, so I figured I might as well continue our "conversation". I asked him about the Lewis Carol-inspired "English tea party" writing style of his dialogues, since his own persona (it turns out) is American mid-west, and not at all like his dialogue writing style. I asked him if he could impersonate such a dialogue style, and he said he could on occasion, but he declined to do so for me in the cafeteria line. Fair enough. So, this part of the conversation was fine, if brief and a tad awkward.

Once I had my cafeteria food, I went out to the cafeteria patio with the group. It was, as expected, difficult to find appropriate seating together for so many people (we numbered about 20 at this point), so the organiser asked me to "hold" a large round table at one end of the patio to help out. But then, in the ensuing confusion, it turned out we didn't need the extra table after all, so I was invited back to the other tables. And wouldn't you know it, the only remaining seat was right next to Hofstadter! So, while I was already satisfied with my interactions with him, and in some sense wanted to "quit while I was ahead", still I nervously accepted the seat right next to him.

There were eight of us at this particular table, and I mostly let the other guests engage Hofstadter. The conversation turned to many things, including Chopin, chess-playing machines, etc. It was all pretty interesting, though largely just because of Hofstadter's presence. I made some comments about the "Deep Thought" chess-playing program that had recently beaten the world champion Gary Kasparov (I had recently seen a talk by one of the programmers), but mostly I just kept quiet.

Then, at one point, I accidentally INSULTED Hofstadter slightly! Oops!

There hadn't really been any talk about artificial intelligence per se so far, and I wanted to move the conversation in that direction, so I decided I would ask Hofstadter a question about it. The problem, though, was that I really had no idea what Hofstadter had been up to for the past fifteen years, since my interest in thinking computers had started to wane. So I tried to phrase my question in terms of the future of thinking computers. My impression is that in the 1970's there was lots of excitement about thinking machines being just around the corner, and that soon half of our "friends" would be computers, etc.. But of course that hasn't amounted to much, and in some ways it's a bit disappointing. So I tried to ask a question that way, asking about where artificial intelligence was heading, and did he agree that it was "disappointing" that thinking computers hadn't yet panned out as well as expected.

But somehow the way my comment came out, it sounded like I was saying there's nothing new in the field lately. This therefore carried the risk that Hofstadter perhaps still worked on questions somehow related to thinking computers, and would therefore be insulted by my comment. And, incredibly, he was! He replied, only half (or less) jokingly, that as someone who works in the field and has some pride, he has to respond to such a question either by saying "Well, you obviously haven't heard about MY work!" or by saying "Oh, I'm disappointed that you don't approve of MY work!" It was a bit awkward! I tried to deflect the personal aspects by saying I was thinking of "the field in general", not specifically about HIS work, though (again since I had no idea what he had been up to for the past fifteen years) I didn't really know what to say. Fortunately, the conversation then launched into more general discussions of AI stuff, and I was off the hook, and it was pretty interesting. So, overall my question worked out okay, but I should have phrased it more carefully, and my big Hofstadter story is that I managed to accidentally insult my childhood idol!

Soon afterwards lunch ended, and in the ensuing melee I managed to slip off without even saying good-bye. I'm sure that Hofstadter didn't remember the incident in the slightest, but I still felt awkward with how it had turned out. In the future, if I know in advance that I will be meeting a childhood idol, I will try to at least do a web search to see what they have done in recent years! Anyway, overall Hofstadter seemed pleasant and chatty and interesting, and it was neat to meet him. And now I have a "celebrity meeting" story to share ...

Addendum: On March 21, 2013 (i.e. over ten years later), Hofstadter gave another talk in Toronto. I was already planning to attend if possible, but then a few days before the talk, I got a personal e-mail from Hofstadter himself! He said he did a web search to find final details of his talk, and came across this very web page -- ulp! To my relief, he said that he "read it with amusement", and he graciously invited me to attend his talk and say hello afterwards, and he ended with "best wishes to you!". So, at least he wasn't cross with me. :-)

[contact me / Writing Page / Home Page]