FSEM 198: Mind and Machine

   Fall, 2004.

   Instructor:  David J. Eck.

   Tuesdays and Thursdays
   8:45--10:10 AM
   Room Stern 101

About the Course

The title of this course is Mind and Machine: Natural and Artificial Intelligence. In it, we will encounter some fundamental questions about the nature of mind and intelligence. We will approach the question of intelligence from two directions: through questions about the physical workings of the human brain (natural intelligence); and through the work that has been done since the 1950s trying to make computers "think," or at least to act as if they can think (artificial intelligence).

It is almost sixty years since the first computers were invented, and it is just about that long since the first speculations about the possibility that computers can display artificial intelligence. In spite of early predictions that computers would soon display human-level intelligence, computer scientists are still far short of that goal. During the same time period, a lot has been learned about human intelligence and the physical functioning of the brain. But in this field too, deep questions remain about the nature of consciousness and the source of emotion and even about the way that people perform such seemingly effortless tasks as recognizing the face of a friend.

In this course, we'll look at the history of the search for computer intelligence, and the difficulties that have been encountered. We'll discuss philosophical arguments for and against the possibility of such intelligence. And we will examine biological intelligence and the relationship between mind and machine. Although the course will deal with computers and the way they work, this is not a technical computer science course. We will not use computers, except possibly in a few demonstrations. In fact, the main thrust of the course is more philosophical than anything else, with side trips into neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science, as well as computer science.

The big questions are: Can a machine think? What is the nature of human thought? What is the relationship between Mind and Machine? We will not answer these questions.


You are asked to purchase seven books for this course. All of them are fairly inexpensive paperbacks. While we will read large chunks of these books, we will not read them in their entirety. Here are short descriptions of the books, in the order in which we will use them:

The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem. (Harvest Books, ISBN 0156027593.) A collection of funny short stories about robots by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. We will read several of these stories at various times throughout the course and talk about the issues that they raise.

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, by Steven Pinker. (Perennial Press, ISBN 0060958332.) Language is one of the most fundamental aspects of human intelligence, and it has long been a goal of Artificial Intelligence to make computers "understand" human language. This books looks at the question of how people use and understand language. It argues that our language ability is a product of evolution, and that it can be explained in terms of the structure and function of various parts of the brain.

The Scientific American Book of the Brain, by the editors of Scientific American. (Lyons Press, ISBN 1585742856.) A collection of articles about the brain from Scientific American magazine. We will read several of these at various times during the course to help us learn something about the physical functioning of the brain.

ROBOT: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, by Hans Moravec. (Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195136306.) The author, a robotics researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, is a true believer in artificial intelligence. He believes that people are in fact machines and that as computers increase in power they will inevitably become as intelligent as people. In fact, he believes that they will grow beyond us and replace us.

On the Internet, by Hubert Dreyfus. (Routledge Press, ISBN 0415228077.) Dreyfus is one of the most famous critics of the artificial intelligence project. He believes that AI will never succeed (at least using its traditional approach to the problem) and furthermore that belief in AI is dehumanizing and dangerous because it can make people think of themselves as machines. In this recent and rather short book, he applies his ideas to trends in education and use of the Internet.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks. (Touchstone Press, ISBN 0684853949.) A collection of clinical case studies by neurologist Oliver Sacks. One of the ways to study the mind is to study the ways it can fail, and we will read about several of Sacks' patients to gain some insight into this.

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, by Steven Johnson. (Scribners Press, ISBN 0684868768.) "Emergence" refers to the way that complex behavior can emerge from the interaction of large numbers of simple parts or entities. In the last ten years of so, some people have begun to believe that the right approach to AI is not to program intelligence but to let it emerge from a suitably designed system of simple components. This is the "Artificial Life" approach to AI. This book is a popular account of emergence.

Assignments, Quizzes, and Grading

Your major individual work for this course will be three papers. The third paper, which I will expect to be a little longer than the other two, will be submitted at the end of the term in place of a final exam. You will be given a chance to rewrite each of the first two papers, if you aren't satisfied with the first grade that you get. These three papers together will count for 50% of your grade, with each of the first two papers counting 15% and the third paper counting 20%.

In addition to the three individual papers, you will work with a partner on a project that will involve another paper and a class presentation. For this project, you will read all or part of a book. You and your partner will have charge of the class for one period in which you present your project and lead a class discussion on it. You will also be responsible for selecting a short reading for the rest of the class, which they will read in advance to prepare for the discussion. You and your partner will have the choice of writing a single paper for the project or writing separate papers on different aspects of the topic. I have tentatively selected the following works for this project:

I will have more information for you about this project early in the term. The project, including paper and presentation, will count for 20% of the course grade.

There will be quizzes which will be given occasionally at the beginning of class. Most of the quizzes will be unannounced and will be on assigned reading that we have not yet discussed in class. I will try to ask questions that you should be able to answer after a reasonably attentive reading of the material. The quizzes will count for 15% of the course grade.

The final 15% of the grade will be based on class participation.


Attendance is required. This includes getting to class on time. If you have a good reason for missing a class and if you know in advance that you will have to miss a class, please let me know about it in advance. If something comes up that you don't know about in advance, such as illness, let me know as soon as possible. Any absence for which you don't have a good excuse will lower your grade for the course.

Office Hours and Email

My office is room 301 in Lansing Hall. My office phone extension is 3398. I am on campus most days, and you are welcome to come in anytime you can find me there. I will announce office hours as soon as my schedule is determined, but note that your office visits are not restricted to my regular office hours.

My email address is eck@hws.edu. Email is good way to communicate with me, since I usually answer messages within a day of receiving them.

The Web site for this course is http://math.hws.edu/eck/fys198. During the term, I will post assignments and other information about the course on this page.

Assignments for the First Week

The class will meet for the first time during Orientation. During that period, we will discuss your initial ideas about human and machine intelligence. The first regular day of class is on Tuesday, August 31. Before that day, you should read the article "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," by Alan Turing which can be found on the web at http://www.abelard.org/turpap/turpap.htm. (You can omit the rather technical fourth and fifth sections.) You should also buy the book The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem, and read the first story in the book, "How the World Was Saved."

Before the second day of class, Thursday, September 2, you should read Chapters 1 and 2 of The Language Instinct. (I won't usually announce quizzes in advance, but I can tell you that the first quiz of the term will be on September 2.)

Welcome to the Colleges and to the course!