Essay: Language, learning, and social interaction – Insights and pitfalls on the road to AGI

This is the first in a series of essays that I’m going to make available through this site. I’m going to put them in the resources page as I write them.

I’m doing this for a couple of reasons. The first is that I like writing. The second is that a blog is not the best format to present ideas that you need to frequently refer to, and often when you get asked the same question by multiple people it is better to point them to a permanent resource rather than repeating yourself each time. The third is that I would like to add some ideas to the general thought-provoking mash-up of AGI memes around the internet. The fourth is that I think people enjoy reading short articles and opinion pieces somewhat more than entire books. The fifth is that (somewhat in contradiction to my previous reason) I’m hoping to eventually write a neat book about related topics, and whilst I have already started doing this, I feel that I need a lot more practice writing several-page documents before I feel I can make something that is 100+ pages long which I am happy with. Note, the PhD thesis does not count!! 😉

So here we go. Click on the title to download the PDF.
You can also find a copy of the essay in the resources tab.

Language, learning, and social interaction
Insights and pitfalls on the road to AGI

Why is language important? What purpose does it serve on a fundamental level? How is it related to the ways in which we learn? Why did it evolve? In this short essay I’m going to take a Darwinian look at language and why we must be careful when considering the role played by language in the building of intelligent machines which are not human-like.


One thought on “Essay: Language, learning, and social interaction – Insights and pitfalls on the road to AGI

  1. Hoover says:

    You say: “We also use our arsenal of language to try to predict ourselves, introspectively, for example when we ask: ‘Do I really want that slice of cake?’ Would we even be able to do this without the framework of language to tie together these concepts? We seem to query ourselves in the same way that we query others. This is an interesting question, and I read somewhere once (annoyingly I can’t remember where!) that only a few centuries ago ‘average’ people (i.e. the poor, labouring classes) started thinking about themselves as agents capable of introspection and philosophical thought.”

    Harold Bloom suggests that we weren’t conscious until Shakespeare, but his theory doesn’t have many fans.

    “According to Bloom, Shakespeare-especially in his creation of Falstaff and Hamlet-so utterly altered human consciousness that after him the world was a different place and we were different creatures.”

    It’s possible that we query ourselves using language simultaneously or even before thinking. There are hints both confirming and denying it.

    One I like is a study of people who wave their hands about when expressing themselves. The waving often happens before the language comes out. And crucially, when these people make an error in the words they use – when they say “I decided the apples among the children”, for example – their hand waving clearly says “dividing”.

    Varley et al show that people who lose some language functions following a stroke can still carry out complex reasoning.

    McGilchrist quotes Jacques Lordat, a neurophysician who suffered aphasia following a stroke. “when I wanted to speak I could not find the expressions that I needed … the thought was all ready, but the sounds that had to express it as intermediary were no longer at my disposition.”

    Do I really want that slice of cake? is worth analysing.

    Of course I want that slice of cake. That’s why I asked the question using language.

    My doubt about eating it may not come from a language-based and introspective discussion of the benefits and disadvantages of cake. It might come from my experience – I know cake makes me put on weight, and that knowledge comes directly from my senses.

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