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How a Child's Growing Mind Is Not Like a Computer



David Auerbach is both an accomplished computer programmer and a skilled writer, so he’s in an ideal position to explain complex topics like AI and systems theory to laypeople. In his new memoir Bitwise: A Life in Code, Auerbach looks at the way technology impacts society from a personal point of view, exploring how programming languages made him fascinated with the world, but also how they taxonomize and constrain that world. The Boston Review has an excerpt from Bitwise in which Auerbach describes watching his infant daughter grow up and acquire an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the world around her. To Auerbach, this learning process resembled the operations of a computer, even as it was far more advanced than any computer could hope to be. Here’s an excerpt:

The transition from free association to rational explanation that children unknowingly make is a mystery that artificial intelligence has yet to conquer. But if we do indeed create such a general network, it is not clear that any great secret of the nature of intelligence will be revealed. We’ll have created something as complicated and irreducible as a human infant itself. We will be able to watch these networks grow, learn, and mature, but we will not be able to debug them any more than we can debug a child. Nor will we understand how or why they function in the way that we understand how an algorithm functions. To say, “Oh, well, it said ‘Goo’ instead of ‘Ga’ because this set of network weights was not triggered and this one was” is not an explanation. Rather, we will see, as I did with my own daughter, that a complex set of predispositions and behaviors, when encoded into a single creature, results in even more complexity when that creature starts to engage with the world in myriad ways.

Image of David Auerbach via Twitter.