published in James Sheehan and Morton Sosna, eds., The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals, Machines, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991 pp. 198-223.
Reprinted in D. Partridge and Y. Wilks, The Foundations of Artificial Intelligence, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990, pp. 167-189.
Note: Footnote references are missing here, and some formatting information is replaced with underscores. This has not been reconciled with the final published version.
Artificial intelligence researchers predict that _thinking
will take over our mental work, just as their mechanical predecessors
were intended to eliminate physical drudgery. Critics have argued with
equal fervor that _thinking machine_ is a contradiction in terms.
Computers, with their foundations of cold logic, can never be creative
or insightful or possess real judgment. Although my own understanding
developed through active participation in artificial intelligence
research, I have now come to recognize a larger grain of truth in the
criticisms than in the enthusiastic predictions. The source of the
difficulties will not be found in the details of silicon micro-circuits
or of Boolean logic, but in a basic philosophy of patchwork rationalism
that has guided the research. In this paper I review the guiding
principles of artificial intelligence and argue that as now conceived it
is limited to a very particular kind of intelligence: one that can
usefully be likened to bureaucracy. In conclusion I will briefly
introduce an orientation I call hermeneutic constructivism and
illustrate how it can lead to an alternative path of
The work presented here was supported by the System Development
Foundation under a grant to the Center for the Study of Language and
Information at Stanford University. A version of this paper was
presented at the conference on _Humans, Animals, and Machines:
Boundaries and Projections,_ sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center
in April, 1987. It was published in a volume of papers from that
Futurologists have proclaimed the birth of a new species, machina
sapiens, that will share (perhaps usurp) our place as the intelligent
sovereigns of our earthly domain. These _thinking machines_ will take
over our burdensome mental chores, just as their mechanical predecessors
were intended to eliminate physical drudgery. Eventually they will
apply their _ultra-intelligence_ to solving all of our problems. Any
thoughts of resisting this inevitable evolution is just a form of
_speciesism,_ born from a romantic and irrational attachment to the
peculiarities of the human organism.
Critics have argued with equal fervor that _thinking machine_ is an
oxymoron_a contradiction in terms. Computers, with their foundations
of cold logic, can never be creative or insightful or possess real
judgment. No matter how competent they appear, they do not have the
genuine intentionality that is at the heart of human understanding.
The vain pretensions of those who seek to understand mind as computation
can be dismissed as yet another demonstration of the arrogance of modern
Although my own understanding developed through active participation in
artificial intelligence research, I have now come to recognize a larger
grain of truth in the criticisms than in the enthusiastic predictions.
But the story is more complex. The issues need not (perhaps cannot) be
debated as fundamental questions concerning the place of humanity in the
universe. Indeed, artificial intelligence has not achieved creativity,
insight and judgment. But its shortcomings are far more mundane: we
have not yet been able to construct a machine with even a modicum of
common sense or one that can converse on everyday topics in ordinary
The source of the difficulties will not be found in the details of
silicon micro-circuits or of Boolean logic. The basic philosophy that
has guided the research is shallow and inadequate, and has not received
sufficient scrutiny. It is drawn from the traditions of rationalism and
logical empiricism but has taken a novel turn away from its
predecessors. This new _patchwork rationalism_ will be our subject of
First, we will review the guiding principles of artificial intelligence
and see how they are embodied in current research. Then we will look at
the fruits of that research. I will argue that _artificial
intelligence_ as now conceived is limited to a very particular kind of
intelligence: one that can usefully be likened to bureaucracy in its
rigidity, obtuseness, and inability to adapt to changing circumstances.
The weakness comes not from insufficient development of the technology,
but from the inadequacy of the basic tenets.
But, as with bureaucracy, weaknesses go hand in hand with unique
strengths. Through a re-interpretation and re-formulation of the
techniques that have been developed, we can anticipate and design
appropriate and valuable uses. In conclusion I will briefly introduce
an orientation I call hermeneutic constructivism and illustrate how it
can lead down this alternative path of design.
In their quest for mechanical explanations of (or substitutes
reason, researchers in artificial intelligence are heirs to a long
tradition . In his Discourse on the method of properly guiding the
reason in the search of truth in the sciences (1637), Descartes
initiated the quest for a systematic method of rationality. Although
Descartes himself did not believe that reason could be achieved through
mechanical devices, his understanding laid the groundwork for the
symbol-processing machines of the modern age.
In 1651, Hobbes described reason as symbolic calculation:
When a man reasoneth, he does nothing else but conceive a sum total,
from addition of parcels; or conceive a remainder.... These operations
are not incident to numbers only, but to all manner of things that can
be added together, and taken one out of another... the logicians teach
the same in consequences of words; adding together two names to make an
affirmation, and two affirmations to make a syllogism; and many
syllogisms to make a demonstration.
Leibniz (as described by Russell)
...cherished through his life the hope of discovering a kind of
generalized mathematics, which he called Characteristica Universalis, by
means of which thinking could be replaced by calculation. "If we had
it," he says "we should be able to reason in metaphysics and morals in
much the same way as in geometry and analysis. If controversies were to
arise, there would be no more need of disputation between two
philosophers than between two accountants. For it would suffice to take
their pencils in their hands, to sit down to their slates, and to say to
each other... 'Let us calculate'"
Behind this program of mechanical reason was a faith in a rational
ultimately understandable universe. The model of "Let us calculate" is
that of Euclidean geometry, in which a small set of clear and self-
evident postulates provides a basis for generating the right answers
(given sufficient diligence) to the most complex and vexing problems.
Reasonable men could be relied upon to agree on the postulates and the
methods, and therefore dispute could only arise from mistaken
The empiricists turned to physical experience and experiment as the true
basis of knowledge. But in rejecting the a priori status of the
propositions on which reasoning was based, they did not abandon the
vision of rigorous (potentially mechanizable) logical procedures. For
our purposes here, it will suffice to adopt a broader characterization,
in which much of both rationalism and empiricism fall within a common
"rationalistic tradition." This label subsumes the varied (and at
times hotly opposed) inheritors of Descartes'
legacy---those who seek to achieve rational reason
through a precise method of symbolic calculation.
The electronic computer gave new embodiment to mechanical rationality,
making it possible to derive the consequences of precisely specified
rules, even when huge amounts of calculation are required. The first
decades of computing emphasized the application of numerical techniques.
Researchers in operations research and decision theory addressed policy
questions by developing complex mathematical models of social and
political systems and calculating the results of proposed
alternatives. Although these techniques work well in specialized
cases (such as scheduling delivery vehicles or controlling the
operations in a refinery), they proved inadequate for the broader
problems to which they were applied. The _mathematization_ of
experience required simplifications that made the computer results_
accurate as they might be with respect to the models_meaningless in
Although there are still attempts to quantify matters of social import
(for example in applying mathematical risk analysis to decisions about
nuclear power), there is an overall disillusionment with the potential
for adequately reducing human concerns to a precise set of numbers and
equations. The developers of artificial intelligence have rejected
traditional mathematical modelling in favor of an emphasis on symbolic_
rather than numerical_formalisms. Leibniz_s _Let us calculate_ is
taken in Hobbes broader sense to include not just numbers but also
_affirmations_ and _syllogisms._
Attempts to duplicate formal non-numerical reasoning on a machine
back to the earliest computers, but the endeavor began in earnest with
the artificial intelligence (AI) projects of the mid 1950s.@^ The goals
were ambitious: to fully duplicate the human capacities of thought and
language on a digital computer. Early claims that a complete theory of
intelligence would be achieved within a few decades have long since been
abandoned, but the reach has not diminished. For example, a recent book
by Minsky (one of the founders of AI) offers computational models for
phenonemena as diverse as conflict, pain and pleasure, the self, the
soul, consciousness, confusion, genius, infant emotion, foreign accents,
and freedom of will.
In building models of mind, there are two distinct but complementary
goals. On the one hand is the quest to explain human mental processes as
thoroughly and unambiguously as physics explains the functioning of
ordinary mechanical devices. On the other hand is the drive to create intelligent tools---
machines that apply intelligence to serve some purpose, regardless of how closely they mimic the details of human
intelligence. At times these two enterprises have gone hand in hand, at others they have led down separate paths.
Researchers such as Newell and Simon (two other founding fathers of
artificial intelligence) have sought precise and scientifically testable
theories of more modest scope than Minsky suggests. In reducing the
study of mind to the formulation of rule-governed operations on symbol
systems, they focus on detailed aspects of cognitive functioning, using
empirical measures such as memory capacity and reaction time. They
hypothesize specific _mental architectures_ and compare their detailed
performance with human experimental results. It is difficult to
measure the success of this enterprise. The tasks that have been
examined (such as puzzle-solving and the ability to remember
abbreviations for computer commands) do not even begin to approach a
representative sample of human cognitive abilities, for reasons we will
On the other side lies the goal of practical system building. In the
late 1970s, the field of artificial intelligence was drastically
affected by the continuing precipitous drop in computing costs.
Techniques that previously demanded highly specialized and costly
equipment came within the reach of commercial users. A new term,
_knowledge engineering,_ was coined to indicate a shift to the pragmatic
interests of the engineer, rather than the scientist_s search for
_Expert systems,_ as the new programs were called, incorporate
_knowledge bases_ made up of simple facts and _if ... then_ rules, as
illustrated in Figure 1.
Tank #23 contains sulfuric acid.
The plaintiff was injured by a portable power saw.
If the sulfate ion test is positive, the spill material is sulfuric
If the plaintiff was negligent in the use of the product,
the theory of contributory negligence applies.
Figure 1: Rules for an expert system (from D. Waterman, A Guide
Expert Systems, p. 16).
Artificial intelligence draws its appeal from the same ideas
mechanized reasoning that attracted Descartes, Leibniz and Hobbes, but
it differs from the more classical forms of rationalism in a critical
way. Descartes_ wanted his method to stand on a bedrock of clear and
self-evident truths. Logical empiricism sought truth through
observation and the refinement of formal theories that predicted
experimental results. Artificial intelligence has abandoned the quest
for certainty and truth. The new patchwork rationalism is built upon
mounds of _micro-truths_ gleaned through common sense introspection, ad
hoc programming and so-called _knowledge acquisition_ techniques for
interviewing experts. The grounding on this shifting sand is pragmatic
in the crude sense__If it seems to be working, it_s right._
The resulting patchwork defies logic. Minsky observes:
_For generations, scientists and philosophers have tried to explain
ordinary reasoning in terms of logical principles_with virtually no
success. I suspect this enterprise failed because it was looking in the
wrong direction: common sense works so well not because it is an
approximation of logic; logic is only a small part of our great
accumulation of different, useful ways to chain things together._
In the days before computing, _ways to chain things together_
remained a vague metaphor. But the computer can perform arbitrary
symbol manipulations that we interpret as having logical import. It is
easy to build a program to which we enter _Most birds can fly_ and
_Tweety is a bird_ and which then produces _Tweety can fly_ according to
a regular (although logically questionable) rule. The artificial
intelligence methodology does not demand a logically correct answer,
but one that works sufficiently often to be _heuristically adequate._
In a way, this approach is very attractive. Everyday human thought does
not follow the rigid strictures of formal deduction. Perhaps we can
devise some more flexible (and even fallible) system that operates
according to mechanical principles, but more accurately mirrors the
But this appeal is subtly deceptive. Minsky places the blame for lack
of success in explaining ordinary reasoning on the rigidity of logic,
and does not raise the more fundamental questions about the nature of
all symbolic representations and of formal (though possibly _non-
logical_) systems of rules for manipulating them. There are basic
limits to what can be done with symbol manipulation, regardless of how
many _different, useful ways to chain things together_ one invents.
The reduction of mind to the interactive sum of decontextualized
fragments is ultimately impossible and misleading. But before
elaborating on the problems, let us first review some assumptions on
which this work proceeds:
The fundamental principle is the identification of intelligence
functioning of a rule-governed symbol-manipulating device. It has been
most explicitly stated by Newell and Simon:
_A physical symbol system has the necessary and sufficient means for
general intelligent action,... By _general intelligent action_ we wish
to indicate the same scope of intelligence we see in human action: that
in any real situation behavior appropriate to the ends of the system and
adaptive to the demands of the environment can occur, within some limits
of speed and complexity._
This _physical symbol system hypothesis_ presupposes
materialism: the claim that all of the observed properties of
intelligent beings can ultimately be explained in terms of lawful
physical processes. It adds the claim that these processes can be
described at a level of abstraction in which all relevant aspects of
physical state can be understood as the encoding of symbol structures
and that the activities can be adequately characterized as systematic
application of symbol manipulation rules.
The essential link is representation---the encoding of
the relevant aspects of the world. Newell
lays this out explicitly:
An intelligent agent is embedded in a task environment; a task statement
enters via a perceptual component and is encoded in an initial
representation. Whence starts a cycle of activity in which a
recognition occurs ... of a method to use to attempt the problem. The
method draws upon a memory of general world knowledge..... It is clear
to us all what representation is in this picture. It is the data
structures that hold the problem and will be processed into a form that
makes the solution available. Additionally, it is the data structures
that hold the world knowledge and will be processed to acquire parts of
the solution or to obtain guidance in constructing it. [emphasis in
Complete and systematic symbolic representation is crucial to the
paradigm. The rules followed by the machine can deal only with the
symbols, not their interpretation.
Newell and Simon_s physical symbol systems aspire not to an
rationality, but to _behavior appropriate to the ends of the system and
adaptive to the demands of the environment._ This shift reflects the
formulation that won Simon a Nobel prize in economics. He supplanted
decision theories based on optimization with a
theory of _satisficing__effectively using
finite decision- making resources to
come up with adequate, but not
necessarily optimal plans of action.
As artificial intelligence developed in the 1950s and 60s, this
methodology was formalized in the techniques of _heuristic search._
The task that a symbol system is faced with, then, when it is presented
with a problem and a problem space, is to use its limited processing
resources to generate possible solutions, one after another, until it
finds one that satisfies the problem-defining test.
The _problem space_ is a formal structure that can be thought of as
enumerating the results of all possible sequences of actions that might
be taken by the program. In a program for playing chess, for example,
the problem space is generated by the possible sequences of moves. The
number of possibilities grows exponentially with the number of moves,
and is beyond practical reach after a small number. However, one can
limit search in this space by following heuristics that operate on the
basis of local cues (_If one of your pieces could be taken on the
opponent_s next move, try moving it...._). There have been a number of
variations on this basic theme, all of which are based on explicit
representations of the problem space and the heuristics for operating
Figure 1 illustrated some rules and facts from expert systems. These
are not represented in the computer as sentences in English, but as
symbols intended to correspond to the natural language terms. As these
examples indicate, the domains are naturally far richer and more complex
than can be captured by such simple rules. A lawyer will have many
questions about whether a plaintiff was _negligent,_ but for the program
it is a simple matter of whether a certain symbolic expression of the
form _Negligent(x)_ appears in the store of representations, or whether
there is a rule of the form _If .... then Negligent(x),_ whose
conditions can be satisfied.
There has been a great deal of technical debate over the detailed form
of rules, but two principles are taken for granted in essentially all of
For example, there may be cases in which the _sulfate ion test
positive_ even though the spill is not sulfuric acid. The overall
architecture of the rule-manipulating system may lead to a conclusion
being drawn that violates one of these rules (on the basis of other
rules). The question is not whether each of the rules is true, but
whether the output of the program as a whole is _appropriate._ The
knowledge engineers hope that by devising and tuning such rules they can
capture more than the deductive logic of the domain:
While conventional programs deal with facts, expert systems handle
_lore_ ... the rules of thumb, the hunches, the intuition and capacity
for judgement that are seldom explicitly laid down but which form the
basis of an expert_s skill, acquired over a lifetime_s experience.
This ad hoc nature of the logic applies equally to the cognitive models
of Newell and Simon, in which a large collection of separate _production
rules_ operate on a symbolic store or _working memory._ Each production
rule specifies a step to be carried out on the symbols in the store, and
the overall architecture determines which will be carried out in what
order. The symbols don_t stand for chemical spills and law, but for
hypothesized psychological features, such as the symbolic contents of
short term memory. Individual rules do things like moving an element to
the front of the memory or erasing it. The cognitive modeler does not
build an overall model of the system_s performance on a task, but
designs the individual rules in hopes that appropriate behavior will
emerge from their interaction.
Minsky makes explicit this assumption that intelligence will emerge from
computational interactions among a plethora of small pieces.
I_ll call _Society of Mind_ this scheme in which each mind is made of
many smaller processes. These we_ll call agents. Each mental agent by
itself can only do some simple thing that needs no mind or thought at
all. Yet when we join these agents in societies_in certain very
special ways_this leads to true intelligence.
Minsky_s theory is quite different from Newell_s cognitive
architectures. In place of finely tuned clockworks of precise
production rules we find an
impressionistic pastiche of metaphors. Minsky illustrates his view in a simple _micro-world_ of toy blocks, populated by agents such as BUILDER
(which stacks up the blocks), ADD (which adds a single block to a stack), and the like:
For example, BUILDER_s agents require no sense of meaning to do their
work; ADD merely has to turn on GET and PUT. Then GET and PUT do not
need any subtle sense of what those turn-on signals _mean__---because
they_re wired up to do only what they_re wired up to do.
These agents seem like simple computer subroutines---program fragments that perform a single well-defined task. But a subsequent chapter describes an interaction between the BUILDER agent and the WRECKER agent, which are parts of a PLAY-WITH-BLOCKS agent:
Inside an actual child, the agencies responsible for BUILDING and
WRECKING might indeed become versatile enough to negotiate by offering
support for one another_s goals. _Please, WRECKER, wait a moment more
till BUILDER adds just one more block: it_s worth it for a louder
With a simple _might indeed become versatile..._, we have slipped
a technically feasible but limited notion of agents as subroutines, to
an impressionistic description of a society of homunculi, conversing
with each other in ordinary language. This sleight of hand is at the
center of the theory. It takes an almost childish leap of faith to
assume that the modes of explanation that work for the details of block
manipulation will be adequate for understanding conflict, consciousness,
genius, and freedom of will.
One cannot dismiss this as an isolated fantasy. Minsky is one of the
major figures in artificial intelligence and he is only stating in a
simplistic form a view that permeates the field. In looking at the
development of computer technology, one cannot help but be struck by the
successes at reducing complex and varied tasks to systematic
combinations of elementary operations. Why not, then, make the jump to
the mind. If we are no more than protoplasm-based physical symbol
systems, the reduction must be possible and only our current lack of
knowledge prevents us from explicating it in detail, all the way from
BUILDER_s clever ploy down to the logical circuitry.
All of the approaches described above depend on interactions
numbers of individual elements: rules, productions, or agents. No one
of these elements can be taken as representing a substantial
understandable truth, but this doesn_t matter since somehow the
conglomeration will come out all right. But how can we have any
confidence that it will? The proposed answer is a typical one of our
modern society: _More is better!_ _Knowledge is
power, and more knowledge is more power._
A widely-used expert systems text declares:
It wasn_t until the late 1970s that AI scientists began to realize
something quite important: The problem-solving power of a program comes
from the knowledge it possesses, not just from the formalisms and
inference schemes it employees. The conceptual breakthrough was made
and can be quite simply stated. To make a program intelligent, provide
it with lots of high-quality, specific knowledge about some problem
area. [emphasis in the original]
This statement is typical of much writing on expert systems,
both in the
parochial perspective that inflates a homily into a _conceptual
breakthrough_ and in its use of slogans like _high-quality knowledge._
Michie (the Dean of artificial intelligence in Britain) predicts :
[Expert systems] ... can actually help to codify and improve expert
human knowledge, taking what was fragmentary, inconsistent and error-
infested and turning it into knowledge that is more precise, reliable
and comprehensive. This new process, with its enormous potential for
the future, we call _knowledge refining._
The miracle product is knowledge, and the Japanese are planning to
package and sell it the way other nations package and sell energy, food,
or manufactured goods.... The essence of the computer revolution is
that the burden of producing the future knowledge of the world will be
transferred from human heads to machine artifacts.
Knowledge is a kind of commodity---to be
produced, refined, and packaged. The knowledge
engineers are not concerned with the age-old epistemological problems of
what constitutes knowledge or understanding. They are hard at work on
techniques of _knowledge acquisition_ and see it as just a matter of
sufficient money and effort:
We have the opportunity at this moment to do a new version of Diderot_s
Encyclopedia, a gathering up of all knowledge_not just the academic
kind, but the informal, experiential, heuristic kind_to be fused,
amplified, and distributed, all at orders of magnitude difference in
cost, speed, volume, and usefulness over what we have now. [emphasis
in the original]
Lenat has embarked on this task of _encod[ing] all the world_s knowledge
down to some level of detail._ The plan projects an initial entry of
about 400 articles from a desk encyclopedia (leading to 10,000
paragraphs worth of material), followed by hiring a large number of
_knowledge enterers_ to add _the last 99 percent._ There is little
concern that foundational problems might get in the way. Lenat asserts
that _AI has for many years understood enough about representation and
inference to tackle this project, but no one has sat down and done
The optimistic claims for artificial intelligence have far
the achievements, both in the theoretical enterprise of cognitive
modelling and in the practical application of expert systems.
Cognitive models seek experimental fit with measured human behavior but
the enterprise is fraught with methodological difficulty, as it
straddles the wide chasm between the engineering bravado of computer
science and the careful empiricism of experimental psychology. When a
computer program duplicates to some degree some carefully restricted
aspect of human behavior, what have we learned? It is all too easy to
write a program that would produce that particular behavior, and all too
hard to build one that covers a sufficiently general range to inspire
confidence. As Pylyshyn (an enthusiastic participant in cognitive
Most current computational models of cognition are vastly
underconstrained and ad hoc; they are contrivances assembled to mimic
arbitrary pieces of behavior, with insufficient concern for explicating
the principles in virtue of which such behavior is exhibited and with
little regard for a precise understanding.
Newell and his colleagues_ painstaking attention to detailed
architecture of production systems is an attempt to better constrain the
computational model, in hopes that experiments can then test detailed
hypotheses. As with much of experimental psychology, a highly
artificial experimental situation is required to get results that can be
sensibly interpreted at all. Proponents argue that the methods and
theoretical foundations that are being applied to micro-behavior will
eventually be extended and generalized to cover the full range of
cognitive phenomena. As with Minsky, this leap from the micro-structure
to the whole human is one of faith.
In the case of expert systems, there is a more immediate concern.
Applied AI is widely seen as a means of managing processes that have
grown too complex or too rapid for unassisted humans. Major industrial
and governmental organizations are mounting serious efforts to build
expert systems for tasks such as air traffic control, nuclear power
plant operation and_most distressingly_the control of weapons systems.
These projects are justified with claims of generality and flexibility
for AI programs. They ignore or downplay the difficulties that will
make the programs almost certain to fail in just those cases where their
success is most critical.
It is a commonplace in the field to describe expert systems as
_brittle__able to operate only within a narrow range of situations.
The problem here is not just one of insufficient engineering, but is a
direct consequence of the nature of rule-based systems. We will examine
three manifestations of the problem: gaps of anticipation; blindness of
representation; and restriction of the domain.
In creating a program or knowledge base, one takes into account
factors and connections as feasible. But in any realistically complex
domain, this gives at best a spotty coverage. The person designing a
system for dealing with acid spills may not consider the possibility of
rain leaking into the building, or of a power failure, or that a
labelled bottle does not contain what it purports to. A human expert
faced with a problem in such a circumstance falls back on common sense
and a general background of knowledge.
The hope of patchwork rationalism is that with a sufficiently large body
of rules, the thought-through spots will successfully interpolate to the
wastelands in between. Having written rule A with one circumstance in
mind and rule B with another, the two rules in combination will succeed
in yet a third. This strategy is the justification for the claim that
AI systems are more flexible than conventional programs. There is a
grain of truth in the comparison, but it is deceptive. The program
applies the rules blindly with erratic results. In many cases, the
price of flexibility (the ability to operate in combinations of
contingencies not considered by the programmer) is irreparable and
In attempting to overcome this brittleness, expert systems are built
with many thousands of rules, trying to cover all of the relevant
situations and to provide representations for all potentially relevant
aspects of context. One system for medical diagnosis, called CADUCEUS
(originally INTERNIST) has 500 disease profiles, 350 disease variations,
several thousand symptoms, and 6,500 rules describing relations among
symptoms. After fifteen years of development, the system is still not
on the market. According to one report, it gave a correct diagnosis in
only 75% of its carefully selected test cases. Nevertheless, Myers,
the medical expert who developed it, _believes that the addition of
another 50 [diseases] will make the system workable and, more
Human experts develop their skills through observing and acting in many
thousands of cases. AI researchers argue that this results in their
remembering a huge repertoire of specialized _patterns_ (complex
symbolic rules) that allow them to discriminate situations with expert
finesse and to recognize appropriate actions. But it is far from
obvious whether the result of experience can be adequately formalized as
a repertoire of discrete patterns. To say that _all of the world_s
knowledge_ could be explicitly articulated in any symbolic form
(computational or not) we must assume the possibility of reducing all
forms of tacit knowledge (skills, intuition, and the like) to explicit
facts and rules. Heidegger and other phenomenologists have challenged
this, and many of the strongest criticisms of artificial intelligence
are based on the phenomenological analysis of human understanding as a
_readiness-to-hand_ of action in the world, rather than as the
manipulation of _present-to-hand_ representations.
Be that as it may, it is clear that the corresponding task in building
expert systems is extremely difficult, if not theoretically impossible.
The knowledge engineer attempts to provide the program with rules that
correspond to the expert_s experience. The rules are modified through
analyzing examples in which the original rules break down. But the
patchwork nature of the rules makes this extremely difficult. Failure
in a particular case may not be attributable to a particular rule, but
rather to a chance combination of rules that are in other circumstances
quite useful. The breakdown may not even provide sharp criteria for
knowing what to change, as with a chess program that is just failing to
come up with good moves. The problem here is not simply one of scale or
computational complexity. Computers are perfectly capable of operating
on millions of elements. The problem is one of human understanding---
the ability of a person to understand
how a new situation experienced in
the world is related to an existing
set of representations, and to possible
modifications of those representations.
In trying to remove the potentially unreliable _human element,_ expert
systems conceal it. The power plant will no longer fail because a
reactor-operator falls asleep, but because a knowledge engineer didn_t
think of putting in a rule specifying how to handle a particular failure
when the emergency system is undergoing its periodic test, and the
backup system is out of order. No amount of refinement and
articulation can guarantee the absence of such breakdowns. The hope
that a system based on patchwork rationalism will respond
_appropriately_ in such cases is just that: a hope, and one that can
engender dangerous illusions of safety and security.
The second problem lies in the symbol system hypothesis itself.
order to characterize a situation in symbolic form, one uses a system of
basic distinctions, or terms. Rules deal with the interrelations among
the terms, not with their interpretations in the world.
Consider ordinary words as an analogy. Imagine that a doctor asks a
nurse _Is the patient eating?_ If they are deciding whether to perform
an examination, the request might be paraphrased _Is she eating at this
moment?_ If the patient is in the hospital for anorexia and the doctor
is checking the efficacy of the treatment, it might be more like _Has
the patient eaten some minimal amount in the past day?_ If the patient
has recently undergone surgery, it might mean _Has the patient taken any
nutrition by mouth,_ and so on. In responding, a person interprets the
sentence as having relevance in the current situation, and will
typically respond appropriately without conscious choosing among
In order to build a successful symbol system, decontextualized meaning
is necessary---terms must be stripped of
open-ended ambiguities and shadings. A medical expert system
might have a rule of the form: _IF Eating(x) THEN ...,_ which is to be
applied only if the patient is eating, along with others of the form _IF
... THEN Eating (x)_ which determine when that condition holds. Unless
everyone who writes or reads a rule interprets the primitive term
_Eating_ in the same way, the rules have no consistent interpretation
and the results are unpredictable.
In response to this, one can try to refine the vocabulary. _Currently-
Dining_ and _Taking-Solids_ could replace the more generic term, or we
could add construal rules, such as _in a context of immediate action,
take _Eating_ to mean _Currently-Dining_. _ Such approaches work for
the cases that programmers anticipate, but of course are subject to the
infinite regress of trying to decontextualize context. The new terms or
rules themselves depend on interpretation that is not represented in the
A consequence of decontextualized representation is the difficulty
creating AI programs in any but the most carefully restricted domains,
where almost all of the knowledge required to perform the task is
special to that domain (i.e., little common sense knowledge is
required). One can find specialized tasks for which appropriate
limitations can be achieved, but these do not include the majority of
work in commerce, medicine, law, or the other professions demanding
Holt characterized the situation:
A brilliant chess move while the room is filling with smoke because the
house is burning down does not show intelligence. If the capacity for
brilliant chess moves without regard to life circumstances deserves a
name, I would naturally call it _artificial intelligence._
The brilliance of a move is with respect to a well-defined
rules of chess. But acting as an expert doctor, attorney, or engineer
takes the other kind of intelligence: knowing what makes sense in a
situation. The most successful artificial intelligence programs have
operated in the detached puzzle-like domains of board games and
technical analysis, not those demanding understanding of human lives,
motivations, and social interaction. Attempts to cross into these
difficult territories, such as a program said to _understand tales
involving friendship and adultery,_@^ proceed by replacing the real
situation with a cartoon-like caricature, governed by simplistic rules
whose inadequacy is immediately obvious (even to the creators, who argue
that they simply need further elaboration).
This reformulation of a domain to a narrower, more precise one can lead
to systems that give correct answers to irrelevant problems. This is of
concern not only when actions are based directly on the output of the
computer system (as in one controlling weapons systems), but also when,
for example, medical expert systems are used to evaluate the work of
physicians.@^ Since the system is based on a reduced representation of
the situation, it systematically (if invisibly) values some aspects of
care while remaining blind to others. Doctors whose salaries,
promotions, or accreditation depend on the review of their actions by
such a program will find their practice being subtly shaped to its mold.
The attempt to encode _the world_s knowledge_ inevitably leads to this
kind of simplification. Every explicit representation of knowledge
bears within it a background of cultural orientation that does not
appear as explicit claims, but is manifest in the very terms in which
the _facts_ are expressed and in the judgment of what constitutes a
fact. An encyclopedia is not a compendium of _refined knowledge,_ but a
statement within a tradition and a culture. By calling an electronic
encyclopedia a _knowledge base_ we mystify its source and its grounding
in a tradition and background.
Many observers have noted the natural affinity between computers
bureaucracy. Lee argues that _bureaucracies are the most ubiquitous
form of artificial intelligence.... Just as scientific management found
its idealization in automation and programmable production robots, one
might consider an artificially intelligent knowledge-based system as the
ideal bureaucrat..._@^ Lee_s stated goal is _improved bureaucratic
software engineering,_ but his analogy suggests more.
Stated simply, the techniques of artificial intelligence are to the mind
what bureaucracy is to human social interaction.
In today_s popular discussion,
bureaucracy is seen as an evil---a
pathology of large organizations and repressive governments. But in
his classic work on bureaucracy, Weber argued its great advantages over
earlier, less formalized systems, calling it the _unambiguous yardstick
for the modernization of the state._ He notes that _bureaucracy has a
_rational_ character, with rules, means-ends calculus, and matter-of-
factness predominating,_ and that it succeeds in _eliminating from
official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and
emotional elements which escape calculation.
The decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has
always been its purely technical superiority over any other form of
organization. The fully developed bureaucratic apparatus compares with
other organizations exactly as does the machine with the non-mechanical
modes of production. Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the
files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of
friction and of material and personal costs_these are raised to the
optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration. [emphasis
The benefits of bureaucracy follow from the reduction of judgment to the
systematic application of explicitly articulated rules. Bureaucracy
achieves a predictability and manageability that is missing in earlier
forms of organization. There are striking similarities here with the
arguments given for the benefits of expert systems, and equally striking
analogies with the shortcomings as pointed out, for example, by March
The reduction in personalized relationships, the increased
internalization of rules, and the decreased search for alternatives
combine to make the behavior of members of the organization highly
predictable; i.e., they result in an increase in the rigidity of
behavior of participants [which] increases the amount of difficulty with
clients of the organization and complicates the achievement of client
satisfaction. [emphasis in original]
Given Simon_s role in artificial intelligence, it is ironic
notes these weaknesses of human-embodied rule systems, but sees the
behavior of rule-based physical symbol systems as _adaptive to the
demands of the environment._ Indeed, systems based on symbol
manipulation exhibit the rigidities of bureaucracies, and are most
problematic in dealing with _client satisfaction_---the
mismatch between the decontextualized
application of rules and the human
interpretation of the symbols that
appear in them. Bureaucracy is most successful
in a world that is stable and
repetitive---where the rules can be followed
without interpretive judgments. Expert systems are
best in just the same situations. Their
successes have been in stable and precise technical areas, where
exceptions are not the rule.
Michie_s claim that expert systems can encode _the rules of thumb, the
hunches, the intuition and capacity for judgement..._ is wrong in the
same way that it is wrong to seek a full account of an organization in
its formal rules and procedures. Modern sociologists have gone beyond
Weber_s analysis, pointing to the informal organization and tacit
knowledge that make organizations work effectively. This closely
parallels the importance of tacit knowledge in individual expertise.
Without it we get rigidity and occasional but irreparable failure.
The depersonalization of knowledge in expert systems also has obvious
parallels with bureaucracy. When a person views his or her job as the
correct application of a set of rules (whether human-invoked or
computer-based), there is a loss of personal responsibility or
commitment. The _I just follow the rules_ of the bureaucratic clerk has
its direct analog in _That_s what the knowledge base says._ The
individual is not committed to appropriate results (as judged in some
larger human context), but to faithful application of the procedures.
This forgetfulness of individual commitment is perhaps the most subtle
and dangerous consequence of patchwork rationality. The person who puts
rules into a knowledge base cannot be committed to the consequences of
applying them in a situation he or she cannot foresee. The person who
applies them cannot be committed to their formulation or to the
mechanics by which they produce an answer. The result belongs to no-
one. When we speak here of _commitment,_ we mean something more general
than the kind of accountability that is argued in court. There is a
deep sense in which every use of language is a reflection of commitment,
as we will see in the following section.
We began with the question of thinking machines_devices that
mechanically reproduce human capacities of thought and language. We
have seen how this question has been reformulated in the pursuit of
artificial intelligence, to reflect a particular design based on
patchwork rationalism. We have argued that the current direction will
be inadequate to explain or construct real intelligence.
But, one might ask, does that mean that no machine could exhibit
intelligence? Is artificial intelligence inherently impossible, or is
it just fiendishly difficult? To answer sensibly we must first ask what
we mean by _machine._ There is a simple a priori proof that machines
can be intelligent if we accept that our own brains are (in Minsky_s
provocative words) nothing but _meat machines._ If we take _machine_ to
stand for any physically constituted device subject to the causal laws
of nature, then the question reduces to one of materialism, and is not
to be resolved through computer research. If, on the other hand, we
take machine to mean _physical symbol system_ then there is ground for a
strong skepticism. This skepticism has become visible among
practitioners of artificial intelligence as well as the critics.
The innovative ideas of cybernetics a few decades ago led to
contrasting research programmes. One, which we have examined here, took
the course of symbol processing. The other was based on modelling
neural activity and led to the work on _perceptrons,_ a research line
that was discounted for many years as fruitless and is now being
rehabilitated in _connectionist_ theories, based on _massively parallel
distributed processing._ In this work, each computing element (analogous
to a neuron) operates on simple general principles, and intelligence
emerges from the evolving patterns of interaction.@^
Connectionism is one manifestation of what Turkle calls _emergent AI._@^
The fundamental intuition guiding this work is that cognitive structure
in organisms emerges through learning and experience, not through
explicit representation and programming. The problems of blindness and
domain limitation described above need not apply to a system that has
developed through situated experience.
It is not yet clear whether we will see a turn back towards the heritage
of cybernetics or simply a _massively parallel_ variant of current
cognitive theory and symbol processing design. Although the new
connectionism may breathe new life into cognitive modelling research, it
suffers an uneasy balance between symbolic and physiological
description. Its spirit harks back to the cybernetic concern with real
biological systems, but the detailed models typically assume a
simplistic representational base much closer to traditional artificial
intelligence. Connectionism, like its parent cognitive theory, must be
placed in the category of brash unproved hypotheses, which have not
really begun to deal with the complexities of mind, and whose current
explanatory power is extremely limited.
In one of the earliest critiques of artificial intelligence, Dreyfus
compared it to alchemy. Seekers after the glitter of intelligence are
misguided in trying to cast it from the base metal of computing. There
is an amusing epilogue to this analogy: in fact, the alchemists were
right. Lead can be converted into gold by a particle accelerator
hurling appropriate beams at lead targets. The AI visionaries may be
right in the same way, and they are likely to be wrong in the same way.
There is no reason but hubris to believe that we are any closer to
understanding intelligence than the alchemists were to the secrets of
nuclear physics. The ability to create a glistening simulacrum should
not fool us into thinking the rest is _just a matter of encoding a
sufficient part of the world_s knowledge_ or into a quest for the
philosopher_s stone of _massively parallel processing._
Discussions of the problems and dangers of computers often
impression that on the whole we would be better off if we could return
to the pre-computer era. In a similar vein one might decry the advent
of written language, which created many new problems. For example,
Weber attributes the emergence of bureaucracy to the spread of writing
and literacy, which made it possible to create and maintain systems of
rules. Indeed, the written word made bureaucracy possible, but that is
far from a full account of its relevance to human society.
The computer is a physical embodiment of the symbolic calculations
envisaged by Hobbes and Leibniz. As such, it is really not a thinking
machine, but a language machine. The very notion of _symbol system_ is
inherently linguistic and what we duplicate in our programs with their
rules and propositions is really a form of verbal argument, not the
workings of mind. It is tempting_but ultimately misleading_to project
the image of rational discourse (and its reflection in conscious
introspection) onto the design of embodied intelligence. In taking
inner discourse as a model for the activity of Minsky_s tiny agents, or
of productions that determine what token to process next, artificial
intelligence has operated with the faith that mind is linguistic down to
the microscopic level.
But the utility of the technology need not depend on this faith. The
computer, like writing, is fundamentally a communication medium_one
that is unique in its ability to perform complex manipulations on the
linguistic objects it stores and transmits. We can reinterpret the
technology of artificial intelligence in a new background, with new
consequences. In doing so we draw on an alternative philosophical
grounding, which I will call hermeneutic constructivism.
We begin with some fundamental questions about what language is and how
it works. In this we draw on work in hermeneutics (the study of
interpretation) and phenomenology, as developed by Heidegger and
Gadamer, along with the concepts of language action developed from the
later works of Wittgenstein through the speech act philosophy of Austin,
Searle, and Habermas.
Two guiding principles emerge: People create their world through
language. Language is always interpreted in a tacitly understood
Austin pointed out that _performative_ sentences do not convey
information about the world, but act to change that world.
__You_re hired,__ when uttered in
appropriate conditions, creates---not
describes---a situation of employment.
Searle applied this insight to mundane language actions such as asking
questions and agreeing to do something. Habermas extended it further,
showing how sentences we would naively consider statements of fact have
force by virtue of an act of commitment by the speaker.
The essential presupposition for the success of [a language] act
consists in the speaker_s entering into a specific engagement, so that
the hearer can rely on him. An utterance can count as a promise,
assertion, request, question, or avowal, if and only if the speaker
makes an offer that he is ready to make good insofar as it is accepted
by the hearer. The speaker must engage himself, that is, indicate that
in certain situations he will draw certain consequences for action.@^
Descartes_ descendants in the rationalistic
tradition take the language of mathematics as their
ideal. Terms are either primitive or can be fully defined; the grammar
is unambiguous; and precise truth conditions can be established through
formal techniques. But even in apparently simple and straightforward
situations, human language is metaphorical, ambiguous and undefinable.
What we can take as fundamental is the engagement_the commitment to
make good what cannot be fully made precise.
This grounding is especially evident for statements of the kind that
Roszak characterizes as _ideas_ rather than _information._ _All men
are created equal_ cannot be judged as a true or false description of
the objective world. Its force resides in the commitments it carries
for further characterization and further action. But it is critical to
recognize that this social grounding of language applies equally to the
mundane statements of everyday life. _The patient is eating,_ cannot be
held up to any specific set of truth conditions across situations in
which it may be uttered. The speaker is not reporting an objectively
delineated state of affairs, but indicating the _engagement_ to enter
sincerely into a dialogue of articulation of the relevant background.
This unavoidable dependence of interpretation on unspoken background is
the fundamental insight of the hermeneutic phenomenologists, such as
Gadamer. It applies not just to ordinary language, but to every
symbolic representation as well. We all recognize that in _reducing
things to numbers_ we lose the potential for interpretation in a
background. But this is equally true of _reducing them to symbol
Whenever a computer program is intended to guide or take action in a
human domain, it inevitably imports basic values and assumptions. The
basic nature of patchwork rationalism obscures the underlying
constitutive _ideas_ with a mosaic of fragmentary bits of _information._
The social and political agenda concealed behind these patches of
decontextualized and depersonalized belief is dangerous in its
Symbol structures are ultimately created by people and interpreted
people. The computer, as a language machine, manipulates symbols
without respect to their interpretation. To the extent that relations
among the meanings can be adequately reflected in precise rules, the
computational manipulations make sense. The error is in assuming that
these manipulations capture, rather than augmenting or reifying parts of
the meaning. If an expert system prints out _Give the patient
penicillin_ or _Fire the missiles now,_ room for interpretation is
limited and meaning is lost. But instead we can see the computer as a
way of organizing, searching and manipulating texts that are created by
people, in a context, and ultimately intended for human interpretation.
We are already beginning to see a movement away from the early vision of
computers replacing human experts. For example, the medical diagnostic
system described above is being converted from _Internist_ (a doctor
specializing in internal medicine) to an _advisory system_ called _QMR_
(for _Quick Medical Reference_).@^ The rules can be thought of as
constituting an automated textbook, which can access and logically
combine entries that are relevant to a particular case. The goal is to
suggest and justify possibilities a doctor might not otherwise have
considered. The program need not respond with an evaluation or plan for
action, but is successful through providing relevant material for
interpretation by an expert. Similarly in areas of real-time control
(like a nuclear power plant), an advisory system can monitor conditions
and provide warnings, reports, and summaries for human review. In a
similar vein, an interactive computer-based encyclopedia need not cover
all of human knowledge or provide general purpose deduction in order to
take advantage of the obvious computer capacities of speed, volume, and
sophisticated inferential indexing.
Another opportunity for design is in the regularities of the structure
of language use. As a simple example, a request is normally followed in
coherent conversation by an acceptance, a rejection, or a request to
modify the conditions. These in turn are followed by other language
acts in a logic of _conversation for action_ oriented towards completion
(a state in which neither party is awaiting further action by the
other). The theory of such conversations has been developed as the
basis for a computer program called The Coordinator_, which is used for
facilitating and organizing computer-message conversations in an
organization.@^ It emphasizes the role of commitment by the speaker in
each speech act and provides the basis for timely and effective action.
Howard has studied the use of computer systems by professionals
evaluating loan applications for the World Bank. He argues that their
use of computers while on field missions increases the _transparency_ of
their decision-making process, hence increasing their accountability and
enhancing opportunities for meaningful negotiation. The computer serves
as a medium of discourse in which different commitments and their
consequences can be jointly explored.
As a result, the dialogue between them [the bankers and their clients]
suddenly becomes less about the final results__the numbers__and more
about the assumptions behind the numbers, the criteria on which
decisions are themselves based.... [quoting a bank professional]
_Instead of just saying, _I don_t believe you, my opinion is X,_ we
explore it. We say, _let_s see what the consequences of that are._
And, sometimes, we end up changing our assumptions._
Current expert systems methodologies are not well suited to this kind of
dialogue. They separate the construction of the knowledge base from the
use of its _expertise._ The experts (with the help of knowledge
engineers) enter the knowledge in the laboratory, and the users apply it
in the field to get results. But we might instead use the
computer to support the discourse that creates the reality---as a
tool for the cooperative articulation
of the characterizations and rules
that will be applied. Rather than seeing the
computer as working with objectified refined knowledge, it can serve as
a way of keeping track of how the representations emerge from
interpretations: who created them in what context, and where to look
The question of our title demands interpretation in a context.
developed in the paper, it might be formulated more precisely _Are we
machines of the kind that researchers are building as _thinking
machines?_ In asking this kind of question
we engage in a kind of projection---
understanding humanity by projecting an image of ourself
onto the machine and the image of the machine back onto ourselves. In
the tradition of artificial intelligence, we project an image of our
language activity onto the symbolic manipulations of the machine, then
project that back onto the full human mind.
But these projections are like the geometric projection of a three-
dimensional world onto a two-dimensional plane. We systematically
eliminate dimensions, thereby both simplifying and distorting. The
particular dimensions we eliminate or preserve in this exercise are not
idiosyncratic accidents. They reflect a
philosophy that precedes them and which
they serve to amplify and extend.
In projecting language as a rule-governed manipulation of symbols, we
all too easily dismiss the concerns of human meaning that make up the
humanities, and indeed of any socially grounded understanding of human
language and action. In projecting language back as the model for
thought, we lose sight of the tacit embodied understanding that
undergirds our intelligence. Through a broader understanding, we can
recapture our view of these lost dimensions, and in the process better
understand both ourselves and our machines.
I thank Gary Chapman, Brad Hartfield and especially Carol Winograd
insightful critical readings of early drafts. I am also grateful for
my continuing conversation with Fernando Flores, in which my
understanding has been generated.
@@. Hobbes, Leviathan, quoted in Haugeland, Artificial Intelligence:
The Very Idea, p24.
@@. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 592.
@@. See Chapter 2 of Winograd and Flores, Understanding Computers and
@@. One large-scale and quite controversial example was the MIT/Club
of Rome simulation of the world social and economic future (The Limits
of Growth) .
@@. See, for example, the discussions in Davis and Hersh, Descartes_
@@. See Gardner, The Mind_s New Science, for an overview of the
@@. These are among the section headings in Minsky, The Society of
@@. See, for example, Newell & Simon, Human Problem Solving, and Laird
et al., Universal Subgoaling and Chunking.
@@. Feigenbaum and McCorduck, pp. 86, 95, 152.
@@. Minsky, The Society of Mind, p. 187. Although Minsky_s view is
prevalent among AI researchers, not all of his colleagues agree that
thought is so open-endedly non-logical. McCarthy (co-founder with
Minsky of the MIT AI- lab), for example, is exploring new forms of logic
that attempt to preserve the rigor of ordinary deduction, while dealing
with some of the properties of commonsense reasoning, as described in
the papers in Bobrow (ed.), Special Issue on Nonmonotonic Logic.
@@. Newell & Simon, Computer science as emiprical inquiry (their
speech accepting the ACM Turing Award_the computer science equivalent
of the Nobel Prize).
@@. Newell, The knowledge level, p. 88.
@@. Newell & Simon, Computer science as empirical inquiry, p. 121.
@@. Michie and Johnston, The Creative Computer, p. 35.
@@. Minsky, The Society of Mind, p. 17.
@@. Ibid., p. 67.
@@. Ibid., p. 33.
@@. Waterman, A Guide to Expert Systems, p.4.
@@. Michie and Johnston, The Creative Computer, p. 129.
@@. Feigenbaum & McCorduck, The Fifth Generation, pp. 12, 40.
@@. Ibid., p. 229.
@@. Lenat, CYC, p. 75.
@@. Pylyshyn, Computation and Cognition, p. xv.
@@. Newquist, The machinery of medical diagnosis, p. 70.
@@. See the discussion in H. Dreyfus and S. Dreyfus, Mind Over
@@. See, for example, H. Dreyfus, What Computers Can_t Do, and
Winograd & Flores, Understanding Computers and Cognition.
@@. Holt, Remarks made at ARPA Principal Investigators_ Conference, p.
@@. See the discussion of the BORIS program in Winograd and Flores,
Understanding Computers and Cognition, pp. 121ff.
@@. See Athanasiou, High-tech politics: The
case of artificial intelligence, p. 24.
@@. Lee, Bureaucracy as artificial intelligence, p. 127.
@@. Weber, Economy and Society, p. 1002.
@@. Ibid., p. 975.
@@. Ibid., p. 973.
@@. March and Simon, Organizations, p. 38.
@@. For a historical account and analysis of the current debates, see
H. Dreyfus, Making a mind vs. modeling the brain. For a technical
view, see Rumelhart and MacLelland, Parallel Distributed Processing.
Maturana and Varela, in The Tree of Knowledge, offer a broad philosophy
of cognition on this base.
@@. Turkle, A new romantic reaction.
@@. H. Dreyfus, Alchemy and artificial intelligence.
@@. See Chapter 5 of Winograd & Flores, Understanding Computers and
Cognition, for an overview.
@@. Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, p. 61.
@@. Roszak, The Cult of Information.
@@. Newquist , The machinery of medical diagnosis, p. 70.
@@. See Flores, Management and Communication in the Office of the
Future; Winograd and Flores, Understanding Computers and Cognition; and
Winograd, A language/action perspective on the design of cooperative
@@. Howard, Systems design and social responsibility.
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