[Reader-list] Artificial Intelligence

Avinash Jha avinash at csdsdelhi.org
Tue Jul 6 10:51:09 IST 2004

An essay on the philosophical assumptions and cognitive habits 
of AI people:

Toward a Critical Technical Practice:
Lessons Learned in Trying to Reform AI
Philip E. Agre


In order to find words for my newfound intuitions, I began studying several 
nontechnical fields. Most importantly, I sought out those people who 
claimed to be able to explain what is wrong with AI, including Hubert 
Dreyfus and Lucy Suchman. They, in turn, got me started reading Heidegger's 
Being and Time (1961 [1927]) and Garfinkel's Studies in Ethnomethodology 
(1984 [1967]). At first I found these texts impenetrable, not only because 
of their irreducible difficulty but also because I was still tacitly 
attempting to read everything as a specification for a technical mechanism. 
That was the only protocol of reading that I knew, and it was hard even to 
conceptualize the possibility of alternatives. (Many technical people have 
observed that phenomenological texts, when read as specifications for 
technical mechanisms, sound like mysticism. This is because Western 
mysticism, since the great spiritual forgetting of the later Renaissance, 
is precisely a variety of mechanism that posits impossible mechanisms.) My 
first intellectual breakthrough came when, for reasons I do not recall, it 
finally occurred to me to stop translating these strange disciplinary 
languages into technical schemata, and instead simply to learn them on 
their own terms. This was very difficult because my technical training had 
instilled in me two polar-opposite orientations to language -- as precisely 
formalized and as impossibly vague -- and a single clear mission for all 
discursive work -- transforming vagueness into precision through 
formalization (Agre 1992). The correct orientation to the language of these 
texts, as descriptions of the lived experience of ordinary everyday life, 
or in other words an account of what ordinary activity is like, is 
unfortunately alien to AI or any other technical field.

I still remember the vertigo I felt during this period; I was speaking 
these strange disciplinary languages, in a wobbly fashion at first, without 
knowing what they meant -- without knowing what sort of meaning they had. 
Formal reason has an unforgiving binary quality -- one gap in the logic and 
the whole thing collapses -- but this phenomenological language was more a 
matter of degree; I understood intellectually that the language was 
"precise" in a wholly different sense from the precision of technical 
language, but for a long time I could not convincingly experience this 
precision for myself, or identify it when I saw it. Still, in retrospect 
this was the period during which I began to "wake up", breaking out of a 
technical cognitive style that I now regard as extremely constricting. I 
believe that a technical field such as AI can contribute a great deal to 
our understanding of human existence, but only once it develops a much more 
flexible and reflexive relationship to its own language, and to the 
experience of research and life that this language organizes.

My second intellectual breakthrough occurred during my initial attempt to 
read Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge (1972). Foucault suggested that 
when two schools of thought are fighting, rather than try to adjudicate the 
dispute, one should explore whether the opposed schools are internally 
related components of a single intellectual formation. Having done so, it 
becomes possible to ask how that whole formation arose historically. I came 
across this idea at an opportune moment. Although the structuralism of The 
Archaeology of Knowledge has often been condemned by Foucault's critics, 
this very structuralism nonetheless ensured that I could grasp Foucault's 
ideas within my habitual patterns of technical thought, and that I could 
then employ his ideas to objectify and defamiliarize those very patterns of 
thought. It became possible, for example, to inquire into the nature and 
workings of the discursive formation that consisted of behaviorism plus 
cognitivism. This was an extraordinary revelation.

It may be objected that The Archaeology of Knowledge is only one possible 
theory of the history of ideas, and that dozens of preferable theories are 
available. My point, however, is that my technical training did not include 
any of those other theories. I later became a zealous consumer of those 
theories, but it was Foucault's theory that first pierced the darkness -- 
precisely because of its commensurability with the order of technical 
thought. Having found a means of objectifying ideas, I could then proceed 
systematically to extricate myself from the whole tacit system of 
intellectual procedures in which I had become enmeshed during my years as a 
student of computer science. For this reason, I have never experienced 
poststructuralism or literary theory as strange or threatening, nor have I 
ever perceived them as varieties of relativism or idealism. Quite the 
contrary, they were the utterly practical instruments by which I first 
became able to think clearly and to comprehend ideas that had not been 
hollowed through the false precision of formalism.

Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.
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