Elon Musk and linguists say that AI is forcing us to confront the limits of human language

In analytic philosophy, any meaning can be expressed in language. In his book Expression and Meaning (1979), UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle calls this idea “the principle of expressibility, the principle that whatever can be meant can be said”. Moreover, in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.

Outside the hermetically sealed field of analytic philosophy, the limits of natural language when it comes to meaning-making have long been recognized in both the arts and sciences. Psychology and linguistics acknowledge that language is not a perfect medium. It is generally accepted that much of our thought is non-verbal, and at least some of it might be inexpressible in language. Notably, language often cannot express the concrete experiences engendered by contemporary art and fails to formulate the kind of abstract thought characteristic of much modern science. Language is not a flawless vehicle for conveying thought and feelings.

In the field of artificial intelligence, technology can be incomprehensible even to experts. In the essay “Is Artificial Intelligence Permanently Inscrutable?” Princeton neuroscientist Aaron Bornstein discusses this problem with regard to artificial neural networks (computational models): “Nobody knows quite how they work. And that means no one can predict when they might fail.” This could harm people if, for example, doctors relied on this technology to assess whether patients might develop complications.

Bornstein says organizations sometimes choose less efficient but more transparent tools for data analysis and “even governments are starting to show concern about the increasing influence of inscrutable neural-network oracles.” He suggests that “the requirement for interpretability can be seen as another set of constraints, preventing a model from a ‘pure’ solution that pays attention only to the input and output data it is given, and potentially reducing accuracy.” The mind is a limitation for artificial intelligence: “Interpretability could keep such models from reaching their full potential.” Since the work of such technology cannot be fully understood, it is virtually impossible to explain in language.

Read more: Quartz

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