“Beware,” he writes, “of innocent phrases like ‘Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what happened to me!’ … behind whose nonchalance is hidden the entire mystery of the human mind.”
In the years after the release of GEB, Hofstadter and AI went their separate ways. Today, if you were to pull AI: A Modern Approach off the shelf, you wouldn’t find Hofstadter’s name—not in more than 1,000 pages. Colleagues talk about him in the past tense. New fans of GEB, seeing when it was published, are surprised to find out its author is still alive.
Of course in Hofstadter’s telling, the story goes like this: when everybody else in AI started building products, he and his team, as his friend, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, wrote, “patiently, systematically, brilliantly,” way out of the light of day, chipped away at the real problem. “Very few people are interested in how human intelligence works,” Hofstadter says. “That’s what we’re interested in—what is thinking?—and we don’t lose track of that question.”
“I mean, who knows?” he says. “Who knows what’ll happen. Maybe someday people will say, ‘Hofstadter already did this stuff and said this stuff and we’re just now discovering it.’ ”
Which sounds exactly like the self-soothing of the guy who lost. But Hofstadter has the kind of mind that tempts you to ask: What if the best ideas in artificial intelligence—“genuine artificial intelligence,” as Hofstadter now calls it, with apologies for the oxymoron—are yellowing in a drawer in Bloomington?
Douglas R. Hofstadter was born into a life of the mind the way other kids are born into a life of crime. He grew up in 1950s Stanford, in a house on campus, just south of a neighborhood actually called Professorville. His father, Robert, was a nuclear physicist who would go on to share the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physics; his mother, Nancy, who had a passion for politics, became an advocate for developmentally disabled children and served on the ethics committee of the Agnews Developmental Center, where Molly lived for more than 20 years. In her free time Nancy was, the joke went, a “professional faculty wife”: she transformed the Hofstadters’ living room into a place where a tight-knit community of friends could gather for stimulating conversation and jazz, for “the interpenetration of the sciences and the arts,” Hofstadter told me—an intellectual feast.
Dougie ate it up. He was enamored of his parents’ friends, their strange talk about “the tiniest or gigantic-est things.” (At age 8, he once said, his dream was to become “a zero-mass, spin one-half neutrino.”) He’d hang around the physics department for 4 o’clock tea, “as if I were a little 12-year-old graduate student.” He was curious, insatiable, unboreable—“just a kid fascinated by ideas”—and intense. His intellectual style was, and is, to go on what he calls “binges”: he might practice piano for seven hours a day; he might decide to memorize 1,200 lines of Eugene Onegin. He once spent weeks with a tape recorder teaching himself to speak backwards, so that when he played his garbles in reverse they came out as regular English. For months at a time he’ll immerse himself in idiomatic French or write computer programs to generate nonsensical stories or study more than a dozen proofs of the Pythagorean theorem until he can “see the reason it’s true.” He spends “virtually every day exploring these things,” he says, “unable to not explore. Just totally possessed, totally obsessed, by this kind of stuff.”