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Foreword The Mullah Nasruddin, the one-man Three Stooges of Sufi holy wisdom, wanted to buy something, so he stroUed to the market and there saw a splendid bushel basketful of red peppers. He asked how much they cost. Only one dinar, exactly how much money he had! He went around inquiring what other baskets of things cost, and all of them were much more expensive. And so he bought the beautiful peppers and went home. Soon a neighbor walked by and saw Nasruddin sitting in front of his house with a half-empty basket of peppers in his lap, eating them and crying miserably. "MuUah Nasruddin, why are you eating those peppers?" the neighbor asked. Nasruddin looked at him tearfuUy and said, "I went to the market and bought them. I paid a full dinar. Surely one wUl be sweet!" Alas, I see myself in thee, Nasruddin. Stubborn pursuit of the irrelevant, failing to see the obvious, getting stuck in grooves. It seems to happen not just to holy fools but to most of us. It accompanies ageing but it also accompanies youth. It is a favorite theme in comic art and entertainment. (Half the cartoons in the New Yorker are dedicated to it.) For me, it caUs to mind the larger issue of why human beings are so contingent on their history; why we don't just move brightly ahead, fully aware of what is before us, clear eyed, rational, open to the present; why even the most mindful, receptive people are continually tracking mud from their past across the kitchen floor. The model of the human mind that was projected during the Enlightenment was of a logical machine with hierarchically arranged faculties. Freud saw the mind as being dominated by drives and primitive conflicts, mostly in the past, with conscious thinking being caught in the undertow of one's psychosexual history. The model of the mind that has been forming since the development of artificial intelUgence research—partly as a result of failed efforts in the field— is of a pragmatic thinking organ, "automated" in the sense that it stays at work most of the time, Umited not by styUzed conflicts between different drives but by an infinitely variable, particularized past. We are all different. We are as different as we can be. Yet stUl we are a product of our pasts. This picture of the mind goes as follows: As we navigate the fluid present, we confront a world of Umitless variety. To deal with it, we depend on a storehouse of rules of thumb, abstractions and proce- dures that we have been gathering for as long as we've been alive. Much of our learning scarcely enters conscious thought. Our minds naturally go about their business, making connections, associating things, coming up with "loose" hypotheses and assumptions. To some extent the brain does its work indiscriminately and continuously , extracting code from the world as naturally as our lungs extract oxygen from the air. At the process of retaining information, the mind tends to be Uke a secretary with a sloppy desk, who "files" things all over the office but is nevertheless usually able to find whatever's needed, often with astonishing speed. Out my window, I see a young woman striding across a hilly park toward an exercise path; inside that confident adult is the child who stumbled around for months learning to navigate the pecuUarities and anomalies of topography. Today, walking across that field, she has no idea how much estimating, comparing, remembering, and rule testing are going on in order for her to accomplish the simple act of walking. Her mind does her the favor of keeping most of these cerebrations hidden. By attempting to imitate human thinking with computers, scientists have learned how much people depend on the detaüs of their mostly "forgotten" past, and how bewilderingly broad human experience apparently needs to be in order for us to understand an unpredictable world. Researchers in artificial intelligence have discovered, to their frustration, that human learning is very hard to divide into separate, describable systems. People learn a lot of little things that build on each other and cross from one area...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 5-8
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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