Lex Fridman Podcast - #3 - Steven Pinker: AI in the Age of Reason

You’ve studied the human mind, cognition, language, vision, evolution, psychology,

from child to adult, from the level of individual to the level of our entire civilization.

So I feel like I can start with a simple multiple choice question.

What is the meaning of life? Is it A. to attain knowledge as Plato said,

B. to attain power as Nietzsche said, C. to escape death as Ernest Becker said,

D. to propagate our genes as Darwin and others have said,

E. there is no meaning as the nihilists have said,

F. knowing the meaning of life is beyond our cognitive capabilities as Stephen Pinker said,

based on my interpretation 20 years ago, and G. none of the above.

I’d say A. comes closest, but I would amend that to

C. to attaining not only knowledge but fulfillment more generally, that is life, health, stimulation,

access to the living cultural and social world.

Now this is our meaning of life. It’s not the meaning of life if you were to ask our genes.

Their meaning is to propagate copies of themselves, but that is distinct from the

meaning that the brain that they lead to sets for itself.

So to you knowledge is a small subset or a large subset?

It’s a large subset, but it’s not the entirety of human striving because we also want to

interact with people. We want to experience beauty. We want to experience the richness

of the natural world, but understanding what makes the universe tick is way up there.

For some of us more than others, certainly for me that’s one of the top five.

So is that a fundamental aspect? Are you just describing your own preference or is this a

fundamental aspect of human nature is to seek knowledge? In your latest book you talk about

the power, the usefulness of rationality and reason and so on. Is that a fundamental

nature of human beings or is it something we should just strive for?

Both. We’re capable of striving for it because it is one of the things that make us what we are,

homo sapiens, wise men. We are unusual among animals in the degree to which we acquire

knowledge and use it to survive. We make tools. We strike agreements via language. We extract

poisons. We predict the behavior of animals. We try to get at the workings of plants.

And when I say we, I don’t just mean we in the modern West, but we as a species everywhere,

which is how we’ve managed to occupy every niche on the planet, how we’ve managed to drive other

animals to extinction. And the refinement of reason in pursuit of human wellbeing, of health,

happiness, social richness, cultural richness is our main challenge in the present. That is

using our intellect, using our knowledge to figure out how the world works, how we work

in order to make discoveries and strike agreements that make us all better off in the long run.

Right. And you do that almost undeniably and in a data driven way in your recent book,

but I’d like to focus on the artificial intelligence aspect of things and not just

artificial intelligence, but natural intelligence too. So 20 years ago in a book you’ve written on

how the mind works, you conjecture again, am I right to interpret things? You can correct me

if I’m wrong, but you conjecture that human thought in the brain may be a result of a

massive network of highly interconnected neurons. So from this interconnectivity emerges thought

compared to artificial neural networks, which we use for machine learning today,

is there something fundamentally more complex, mysterious, even magical about the biological

neural networks versus the ones we’ve been starting to use over the past 60 years and

have become to success in the past 10? There is something a little bit mysterious

about the human neural networks, which is that each one of us who is a neural network knows that

we ourselves are conscious. Conscious not in the sense of registering our surroundings or even

registering our internal state, but in having subjective first person, present tense experience.

That is when I see red, it’s not just different from green, but there’s a redness to it that I

feel. Whether an artificial system would experience that or not, I don’t know and I don’t think I can

know. That’s why it’s mysterious. If we had a perfectly lifelike robot that was behaviorally

indistinguishable from a human, would we attribute consciousness to it or ought we to attribute

consciousness to it? And that’s something that it’s very hard to know. But putting that aside,

putting aside that largely philosophical question, the question is, is there some difference between

the human neural network and the ones that we’re building in artificial intelligence will mean

that we’re on the current trajectory, not going to reach the point where we’ve got a lifelike

robot indistinguishable from a human because the way their so called neural networks are organized

are different from the way ours are organized. I think there’s overlap, but I think there are

some big differences that current neural networks, current so called deep learning systems are in

reality not all that deep. That is, they are very good at extracting high order statistical

regularities, but most of the systems don’t have a semantic level, a level of actual understanding

of who did what to whom, why, where, how things work, what causes what else. Do you think that

kind of thing can emerge as it does? So artificial neural networks are much smaller, the number of

connections and so on than the current human biological networks, but do you think sort of

to go to consciousness or to go to this higher level semantic reasoning about things, do you

think that can emerge with just a larger network with a more richly weirdly interconnected network?

Separate it in consciousness because consciousness is even a matter of complexity.

A really weird one.

Yeah, you could sensibly ask the question of whether shrimp are conscious, for example,

they’re not terribly complex, but maybe they feel pain. So let’s just put that part of it aside.

But I think sheer size of a neural network is not enough to give it structure and knowledge,

but if it’s suitably engineered, then why not? That is, we’re neural networks, natural selection

did a kind of equivalent of engineering of our brains. So I don’t think there’s anything mysterious

in the sense that no system made out of silicon could ever do what a human brain can do. I think

it’s possible in principle. Whether it’ll ever happen depends not only on how clever we are

in engineering these systems, but whether we even want to, whether that’s even a sensible goal.

That is, you can ask the question, is there any locomotion system that is as good as a human?

Well, we kind of want to do better than a human ultimately in terms of legged locomotion.

There’s no reason that humans should be our benchmark. They’re tools that might be better

in some ways. It may be that we can’t duplicate a natural system because at some point it’s so much

cheaper to use a natural system that we’re not going to invest more brainpower and resources.

So for example, we don’t really have an exact substitute for wood. We still build houses out

of wood. We still build furniture out of wood. We like the look. We like the feel. It has certain

properties that synthetics don’t. It’s not that there’s anything magical or mysterious about wood.

It’s just that the extra steps of duplicating everything about wood is something we just haven’t

bothered because we have wood. Likewise, say cotton. I’m wearing cotton clothing now. It feels

much better than polyester. It’s not that cotton has something magic in it. It’s not that we couldn’t

ever synthesize something exactly like cotton, but at some point it’s just not worth it. We’ve got

cotton. Likewise, in the case of human intelligence, the goal of making an artificial system that is

exactly like the human brain is a goal that we probably know is going to pursue to the bitter

end, I suspect, because if you want tools that do things better than humans, you’re not going to

care whether it does something like humans. So for example, diagnosing cancer or predicting the

weather, why set humans as your benchmark? But in general, I suspect you also believe

that even if the human should not be a benchmark and we don’t want to imitate humans in their

system, there’s a lot to be learned about how to create an artificial intelligence system by

studying the human. Yeah, I think that’s right. In the same way that to build flying machines,

we want to understand the laws of aerodynamics, including birds, but not mimic the birds,

but they’re the same laws. You have a view on AI, artificial intelligence, and safety

that, from my perspective, is refreshingly rational or perhaps more importantly, has elements

of positivity to it, which I think can be inspiring and empowering as opposed to paralyzing.

For many people, including AI researchers, the eventual existential threat of AI is obvious,

not only possible, but obvious. And for many others, including AI researchers, the threat

is not obvious. So Elon Musk is famously in the highly concerned about AI camp, saying things like

AI is far more dangerous than nuclear weapons, and that AI will likely destroy human civilization.

Human civilization. So in February, he said that if Elon was really serious about AI, the threat

of AI, he would stop building self driving cars that he’s doing very successfully as part of Tesla.

Then he said, wow, if even Pinker doesn’t understand the difference between narrow AI,

like a car and general AI, when the latter literally has a million times more compute power

and an open ended utility function, humanity is in deep trouble. So first, what did you mean by

the statement about Elon Musk should stop building self driving cars if he’s deeply concerned?

Not the last time that Elon Musk has fired off an intemperate tweet.

Well, we live in a world where Twitter has power.

Yes. Yeah, I think there are two kinds of existential threat that have been discussed

in connection with artificial intelligence, and I think that they’re both incoherent.

One of them is a vague fear of AI takeover, that just as we subjugated animals and less technologically

advanced peoples, so if we build something that’s more advanced than us, it will inevitably turn us

into pets or slaves or domesticated animal equivalents. I think this confuses intelligence

with a will to power, that it so happens that in the intelligence system we are most familiar with,

namely homo sapiens, we are products of natural selection, which is a competitive process,

and so bundled together with our problem solving capacity are a number of nasty traits like

dominance and exploitation and maximization of power and glory and resources and influence.

There’s no reason to think that sheer problem solving capability will set that as one of its

goals. Its goals will be whatever we set its goals as, and as long as someone isn’t building a

megalomaniacal artificial intelligence, then there’s no reason to think that it would naturally

evolve in that direction. Now, you might say, well, what if we gave it the goal of maximizing

its own power source? That’s a pretty stupid goal to give an autonomous system. You don’t give it

that goal. I mean, that’s just self evidently idiotic. So if you look at the history of the

world, there’s been a lot of opportunities where engineers could instill in a system

destructive power and they choose not to because that’s the natural process of engineering.

Well, except for weapons. I mean, if you’re building a weapon, its goal is to destroy people,

and so I think there are good reasons to not build certain kinds of weapons. I think building

nuclear weapons was a massive mistake. You do. So maybe pause on that because that is one of

the serious threats. Do you think that it was a mistake in a sense that it should have been

stopped early on? Or do you think it’s just an unfortunate event of invention that this was

invented? Do you think it’s possible to stop? I guess is the question. It’s hard to rewind the

clock because of course it was invented in the context of World War II and the fear that the

Nazis might develop one first. Then once it was initiated for that reason, it was hard to turn

off, especially since winning the war against the Japanese and the Nazis was such an overwhelming

goal of every responsible person that there’s just nothing that people wouldn’t have done then

to ensure victory. It’s quite possible if World War II hadn’t happened that nuclear weapons

wouldn’t have been invented. We can’t know, but I don’t think it was by any means a necessity,

any more than some of the other weapon systems that were envisioned but never implemented,

like planes that would disperse poison gas over cities like crop dusters or systems to try to

create earthquakes and tsunamis in enemy countries, to weaponize the weather,

weaponize solar flares, all kinds of crazy schemes that we thought the better of.

I think analogies between nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence are fundamentally

misguided because the whole point of nuclear weapons is to destroy things. The point of

artificial intelligence is not to destroy things. So the analogy is misleading.

So there’s two artificial intelligence you mentioned. The first one I guess is highly

intelligent or power hungry.

Yeah, it’s a system that we design ourselves where we give it the goals. Goals are external to

the means to attain the goals. If we don’t design an artificially intelligent system to

maximize dominance, then it won’t maximize dominance. It’s just that we’re so familiar

with homo sapiens where these two traits come bundled together, particularly in men,

that we are apt to confuse high intelligence with a will to power, but that’s just an error.

The other fear is that will be collateral damage that will give artificial intelligence a goal

like make paper clips and it will pursue that goal so brilliantly that before we can stop it,

it turns us into paper clips. We’ll give it the goal of curing cancer and it will turn us into

guinea pigs for lethal experiments or give it the goal of world peace and its conception of world

peace is no people, therefore no fighting and so it will kill us all. Now I think these are utterly

fanciful. In fact, I think they’re actually self defeating. They first of all assume that we’re

going to be so brilliant that we can design an artificial intelligence that can cure cancer,

but so stupid that we don’t specify what we mean by curing cancer in enough detail that it won’t

kill us in the process and it assumes that the system will be so smart that it can cure cancer,

but so idiotic that it can’t figure out that what we mean by curing cancer is not killing everyone.

I think that the collateral damage scenario, the value alignment problem is also based on

a misconception. So one of the challenges, of course, we don’t know how to build either system

currently or are we even close to knowing? Of course, those things can change overnight,

but at this time, theorizing about it is very challenging in either direction. So that’s

probably at the core of the problem is without that ability to reason about the real engineering

things here at hand is your imagination runs away with things. Exactly. But let me sort of ask,

what do you think was the motivation, the thought process of Elon Musk? I build autonomous vehicles,

I study autonomous vehicles, I study Tesla autopilot. I think it is one of the greatest

currently large scale application of artificial intelligence in the world. It has potentially a

very positive impact on society. So how does a person who’s creating this very good quote unquote

narrow AI system also seem to be so concerned about this other general AI? What do you think

is the motivation there? What do you think is the thing? Well, you probably have to ask him,

but there, and he is notoriously flamboyant, impulsive to the, as we have just seen,

to the detriment of his own goals of the health of the company. So I don’t know what’s going on

in his mind. You probably have to ask him, but I don’t think the, and I don’t think the distinction

between special purpose AI and so called general AI is relevant that in the same way that special

purpose AI is not going to do anything conceivable in order to attain a goal. All engineering systems

are designed to trade off across multiple goals. When we build cars in the first place,

we didn’t forget to install brakes because the goal of a car is to go fast. It occurred to people,

yes, you want it to go fast, but not always. So you would build in brakes too. Likewise,

if a car is going to be autonomous and program it to take the shortest route to the airport,

it’s not going to take the diagonal and mow down people and trees and fences because that’s the

shortest route. That’s not what we mean by the shortest route when we program it. And that’s just

what an intelligence system is by definition. It takes into account multiple constraints.

The same is true, in fact, even more true of so called general intelligence. That is,

if it’s genuinely intelligent, it’s not going to pursue some goal singlemindedly, omitting every

other consideration and collateral effect. That’s not artificial and general intelligence. That’s

artificial stupidity. I agree with you, by the way, on the promise of autonomous vehicles for

improving human welfare. I think it’s spectacular. And I’m surprised at how little press coverage

notes that in the United States alone, something like 40,000 people die every year on the highways,

vastly more than are killed by terrorists. And we spent a trillion dollars on a war to combat

deaths by terrorism, about half a dozen a year. Whereas year in, year out, 40,000 people are

massacred on the highways, which could be brought down to very close to zero. So I’m with you on

the humanitarian benefit. Let me just mention that as a person who’s building these cars,

it is a little bit offensive to me to say that engineers would be clueless enough not to engineer

safety into systems. I often stay up at night thinking about those 40,000 people that are dying.

And everything I tried to engineer is to save those people’s lives. So every new invention that

I’m super excited about, in all the deep learning literature and CVPR conferences and NIPS, everything

I’m super excited about is all grounded in making it safe and help people. So I just don’t see how

that trajectory can all of a sudden slip into a situation where intelligence will be highly

negative. You and I certainly agree on that. And I think that’s only the beginning of the

potential humanitarian benefits of artificial intelligence. There’s been enormous attention to

what are we going to do with the people whose jobs are made obsolete by artificial intelligence,

but very little attention given to the fact that the jobs that are going to be made obsolete are

horrible jobs. The fact that people aren’t going to be picking crops and making beds and driving

trucks and mining coal, these are soul deadening jobs. And we have a whole literature sympathizing

with the people stuck in these menial, mind deadening, dangerous jobs. If we can eliminate

them, this is a fantastic boon to humanity. Now granted, you solve one problem and there’s another

one, namely, how do we get these people a decent income? But if we’re smart enough to invent machines

that can make beds and put away dishes and handle hospital patients, I think we’re smart enough to

figure out how to redistribute income to apportion some of the vast economic savings to the human

beings who will no longer be needed to make beds. Okay. Sam Harris says that it’s obvious that

eventually AI will be an existential risk. He’s one of the people who says it’s obvious.

We don’t know when the claim goes, but eventually it’s obvious. And because we don’t know when,

we should worry about it now. This is a very interesting argument in my eyes. So how do we

think about timescale? How do we think about existential threats when we don’t really, we know

so little about the threat, unlike nuclear weapons perhaps, about this particular threat, that it

could happen tomorrow, right? So, but very likely it won’t. Very likely it’d be a hundred years away.

So how do we ignore it? How do we talk about it? Do we worry about it? How do we think about those?

What is it?

A threat that we can imagine. It’s within the limits of our imagination,

but not within our limits of understanding to accurately predict it.

But what is the it that we’re afraid of?

Sorry. AI being the existential threat.

AI. How? Like enslaving us or turning us into paperclips?

I think the most compelling from the Sam Harris perspective would be the paperclip situation.

Yeah. I mean, I just think it’s totally fanciful. I mean, that is don’t build a system.

Don’t give a, don’t, first of all, the code of engineering is you don’t implement a system with

massive control before testing it. Now, perhaps the culture of engineering will radically change.

Then I would worry, but I don’t see any signs that engineers will suddenly do idiotic things,

like put a electric power plant in control of a system that they haven’t tested first.

Or all of these scenarios, not only imagine almost a magically powered intelligence,

including things like cure cancer, which is probably an incoherent goal because there’s

so many different kinds of cancer or bring about world peace. I mean, how do you even specify that

as a goal? But the scenarios also imagine some degree of control of every molecule in the

universe, which not only is itself unlikely, but we would not start to connect these systems to

infrastructure without testing as we would any kind of engineering system.

Now, maybe some engineers will be irresponsible and we need legal and regulatory and legal

responsibility implemented so that engineers don’t do things that are stupid by their own standards.

But the, I’ve never seen enough of a plausible scenario of existential threat to devote large

amounts of brain power to, to forestall it. So you believe in the sort of the power on

mass of the engineering of reason, as you argue in your latest book of Reason and Science, to sort of

be the very thing that guides the development of new technology so it’s safe and also keeps us safe.

You know, granted the same culture of safety that currently is part of the engineering mindset for

airplanes, for example. So yeah, I don’t think that that should be thrown out the window and

that untested all powerful systems should be suddenly implemented, but there’s no reason to

think they are. And in fact, if you look at the progress of artificial intelligence, it’s been,

you know, it’s been impressive, especially in the last 10 years or so, but the idea that suddenly

there’ll be a step function that all of a sudden before we know it, it will be all powerful,

that there’ll be some kind of recursive self improvement, some kind of fume is also fanciful.

We, certainly by the technology that we, that we’re now impresses us, such as deep learning,

where you train something on hundreds of thousands or millions of examples,

they’re not hundreds of thousands of problems of which curing cancer is a typical example.

And so the kind of techniques that have allowed AI to increase in the last five years are not the

kind that are going to lead to this fantasy of exponential sudden self improvement. I think it’s

kind of a magical thinking. It’s not based on our understanding of how AI actually works.

Now give me a chance here. So you said fanciful, magical thinking. In his TED talk,

Sam Harris says that thinking about AI killing all human civilization is somehow fun,

intellectually. Now I have to say as a scientist engineer, I don’t find it fun,

but when I’m having beer with my non AI friends, there is indeed something fun and appealing about

it. Like talking about an episode of Black Mirror, considering if a large meteor is headed towards

Earth, we were just told a large meteor is headed towards Earth, something like this. And can you

relate to this sense of fun? And do you understand the psychology of it?

Yes. Good question. I personally don’t find it fun. I find it kind of actually a waste of time

because there are genuine threats that we ought to be thinking about like pandemics, like cyber

security vulnerabilities, like the possibility of nuclear war and certainly climate change.

You know, this is enough to fill many conversations. And I think Sam did put his

finger on something, namely that there is a community, sometimes called the rationality

community, that delights in using its brainpower to come up with scenarios that would not occur

to mere mortals, to less cerebral people. So there is a kind of intellectual thrill in finding new

things to worry about that no one has worried about yet. I actually think, though, that it’s

not only is it a kind of fun that doesn’t give me particular pleasure, but I think there can be a

pernicious side to it, namely that you overcome people with such dread, such fatalism, that there

are so many ways to die, to annihilate our civilization, that we may as well enjoy life

while we can. There’s nothing we can do about it. If climate change doesn’t do us in, then runaway

robots will. So let’s enjoy ourselves now. We’ve got to prioritize. We have to look at threats that

are close to certainty, such as climate change, and distinguish those from ones that are merely

imaginable but with infinitesimal probabilities. And we have to take into account people’s worry

budget. You can’t worry about everything. And if you sow dread and fear and terror and fatalism,

it can lead to a kind of numbness. Well, these problems are overwhelming, and the engineers are

just going to kill us all. So let’s either destroy the entire infrastructure of science, technology,

or let’s just enjoy life while we can. So there’s a certain line of worry, which I’m worried about

a lot of things in engineering. There’s a certain line of worry when you cross, you’re allowed to

cross, that it becomes paralyzing fear as opposed to productive fear. And that’s kind of what

you’re highlighting. Exactly right. And we’ve seen some, we know that human effort is not

well calibrated against risk in that because a basic tenet of cognitive psychology is that

perception of risk and hence perception of fear is driven by imaginability, not by data. And so we

misallocate vast amounts of resources to avoiding terrorism, which kills on average about six

Americans a year with one exception of 9 11. We invade countries, we invent entire new departments

of government with massive, massive expenditure of resources and lives to defend ourselves against

a trivial risk. Whereas guaranteed risks, one of them you mentioned traffic fatalities and even

risks that are not here, but are plausible enough to worry about like pandemics, like nuclear war,

receive far too little attention. In presidential debates, there’s no discussion of how to minimize

the risk of nuclear war. Lots of discussion of terrorism, for example. And so I think it’s

essential to calibrate our budget of fear, worry, concern, planning to the actual probability of

harm. Yep. So let me ask this question. So speaking of imaginability, you said it’s important to think

about reason and one of my favorite people who likes to dip into the outskirts of reason through

fascinating exploration of his imagination is Joe Rogan. Oh yes. So who has through reason used to

believe a lot of conspiracies and through reason has stripped away a lot of his beliefs in that

way. So it’s fascinating actually to watch him through rationality kind of throw away the ideas

of Bigfoot and 9 11. I’m not sure exactly. Kim Trails. I don’t know what he believes in. Yes.

Okay. But he no longer believed in. No, that’s right. No, he’s become a real force for good.

Yep. So you were on the Joe Rogan podcast in February and had a fascinating conversation,

but as far as I remember, didn’t talk much about artificial intelligence. I will be on his podcast

in a couple of weeks. Joe is very much concerned about existential threat of AI. I’m not sure if

you’re, this is why I was hoping that you would get into that topic. And in this way,

he represents quite a lot of people who look at the topic of AI from 10,000 foot level.

So as an exercise of communication, you said it’s important to be rational and reason

about these things. Let me ask, if you were to coach me as an AI researcher about how to speak

to Joe and the general public about AI, what would you advise? Well, the short answer would be to

read the sections that I wrote in enlightenment now about AI, but a longer reason would be I

think to emphasize, and I think you’re very well positioned as an engineer to remind people about

the culture of engineering, that it really is safety oriented, that another discussion in

enlightenment now, I plot rates of accidental death from various causes, plane crashes, car

crashes, occupational accidents, even death by lightning strikes. And they all plummet because

the culture of engineering is how do you squeeze out the lethal risks, death by fire, death by

drowning, death by asphyxiation, all of them drastically declined because of advances in

engineering that I got to say, I did not appreciate until I saw those graphs. And it is because

exactly, people like you who stay up at night thinking, oh my God, is what I’m inventing likely

to hurt people and to deploy ingenuity to prevent that from happening. Now, I’m not an engineer,

although I spent 22 years at MIT, so I know something about the culture of engineering.

My understanding is that this is the way you think if you’re an engineer. And it’s essential

that that culture not be suddenly switched off when it comes to artificial intelligence. So,

I mean, that could be a problem, but is there any reason to think it would be switched off?

I don’t think so. And one, there’s not enough engineers speaking up for this

way, for the excitement, for the positive view of human nature, what you’re trying to create

is positivity. Like everything we try to invent is trying to do good for the world.

But let me ask you about the psychology of negativity. It seems just objectively,

not considering the topic, it seems that being negative about the future makes you sound smarter

than being positive about the future, irregardless of topic. Am I correct in this observation? And

if so, why do you think that is? Yeah, I think there is that phenomenon that,

as Tom Lehrer, the satirist said, always predict the worst and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.

It may be part of our overall negativity bias. We are as a species more attuned to the negative

than the positive. We dread losses more than we enjoy gains. And that might open up a space for

prophets to remind us of harms and risks and losses that we may have overlooked.

So I think there is that asymmetry. So you’ve written some of my favorite books

all over the place. So starting from Enlightenment Now to The Better Ages of Our Nature,

Blank Slate, How the Mind Works, the one about language, Language Instinct. Bill Gates,

big fan too, said of your most recent book that it’s my new favorite book of all time.

So for you as an author, what was a book early on in your life that had a profound impact on the

way you saw the world? Certainly this book, Enlightenment Now, was influenced by David

Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, a rather deep reflection on knowledge and the power of

knowledge to improve the human condition. And with bits of wisdom such as that problems are

inevitable but problems are solvable given the right knowledge and that solutions create new

problems that have to be solved in their turn. That’s I think a kind of wisdom about the human

condition that influenced the writing of this book. There are some books that are excellent

but obscure, some of which I have on a page on my website. I read a book called The History of Force,

self published by a political scientist named James Payne on the historical decline of violence

and that was one of the inspirations for The Better Angels of Our Nature.

What about early on? If you look back when you were maybe a teenager?

I loved a book called One, Two, Three, Infinity. When I was a young adult I read that book by

George Gamow, the physicist, which had very accessible and humorous explanations of

relativity, of number theory, of dimensionality, high multiple dimensional spaces in a way that I

think is still delightful 70 years after it was published. I like the Time Life Science series.

These are books that would arrive every month that my mother subscribed to, each one on a different

topic. One would be on electricity, one would be on forests, one would be on evolution and then one

was on the mind. I was just intrigued that there could be a science of mind and that book I would

cite as an influence as well. Then later on… That’s when you fell in love with the idea of

studying the mind? Was that the thing that grabbed you? It was one of the things I would say. I read

as a college student the book Reflections on Language by Noam Chomsky. I spent most of his

career here at MIT. Richard Dawkins, two books, The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene,

were enormously influential, mainly for the content but also for the writing style, the

ability to explain abstract concepts in lively prose. Stephen Jay Gould’s first collection,

Ever Since Darwin, also an excellent example of lively writing. George Miller, a psychologist that

most psychologists are familiar with, came up with the idea that human memory has a capacity of

seven plus or minus two chunks. That’s probably his biggest claim to fame. But he wrote a couple

of books on language and communication that I read as an undergraduate. Again, beautifully written

and intellectually deep. Wonderful. Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time today.

My pleasure. Thanks a lot, Lex.

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