Noam Chomsky: Language, Cognition, and Deep Learning | Lex Fridman Podcast #53 | Summary and Q&A

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November 29, 2019
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Lex Fridman Podcast
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Noam Chomsky: Language, Cognition, and Deep Learning | Lex Fridman Podcast #53

TL;DR

Noam Chomsky discusses language, cognition, deep learning, and human nature in a conversation with Lex Fridman.

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Questions & Answers

Q: Can humans find a common language with an alien species?

There is a possibility of establishing a mode of communication based on the core properties of human language and arithmetic, which may be universally shared.

Q: What is the structure of language in the brain?

Language is an inner system in the brain that determines the sound and meaning of expressions. It is localized in specific configurations of the brain.

Q: Do you think deep learning can expand human cognitive capacity?

Deep learning can provide patterns and approximations of language, but it does not contribute to a fundamental expansion of human cognitive abilities.

Q: Are most human beings inherently good or capable of intentional evil?

Human nature can accommodate both good and evil, but the development of institutions and societal structures shapes human behavior.

Q: Can humans find a common language with an alien species?

There is a possibility of establishing a mode of communication based on the core properties of human language and arithmetic, which may be universally shared.

More Insights

  • Language exhibits structure dependence, where interpretation is influenced by the relationships between words and their positioning.

  • Human language has deep roots in our cognitive abilities and is unique to our species.

  • Deep learning in neural networks is more of an engineering approach than a scientific one, as it focuses on patterns rather than understanding the nature of language.

  • Institutions and historical contingencies contribute to the development of societal structures, but they are not essential to human nature.

  • The significance and meaning of life are subjective and determined by individual actions and pursuits.

Summary

In this conversation, Lex Fridman interviews Noam Chomsky, one of the great minds of our time. They discuss topics like the possibility of communication with alien species, the structure of language, the roots of language in the human mind, the limits of human cognition, the potential of neural networks in language learning, the role of institutions in shaping society, and the significance of human existence.

Questions & Answers

Q: Is it possible to find a common language or protocol of communication with an alien species?

There are arguments that suggest it could be possible. One experiment showed that if an alien species developed higher intelligence, they would at least have arithmetic. The core principles of natural language are based on operations that yield something like arithmetic. Therefore, it's conceivable that a mode of communication could be established based on the core properties of human language and arithmetic.

Q: What is the structure of language as an internal system inside our mind versus an external system as it's expressed?

Language has both an internal system and an external system. The internal system is located in specific configurations of the brain and it determines the sound and meaning of expressions in a particular language. The external system refers to the externalized use of language, where it becomes noises in the atmosphere. These are two different concepts of language and they are not alternatives to each other.

Q: How deep do the roots of language go in our brain?

The roots of language in our brain are similar to how our genetic endowment determines our physical traits. Our genetic endowment determines that we have a human language faculty, which is not found in any other organism. Language is the core of human cognitive nature and serves as the source for constructing and expressing thoughts. It has fundamental creative capacities and is the basis for our unique achievements as a species.

Q: Do language and the capacity to think and reason go hand in hand?

The capacity to think and reason is undoubtedly linked with language. Language is the mechanism through which we reason. It may involve other faculties as well, but language plays a crucial role in our ability to reason. We also have a scientific faculty that enables us to pursue specific lines of inquiry and achieve understanding beyond what language alone can provide.

Q: What are the limits and scope of human cognition?

Human cognition has scope and limits, just like our physical traits. The scope and limits of cognition are interrelated with our genetic endowment. If we are biological organisms, our cognitive capacities should have limitations. We cannot understand everything in principle, despite the common belief that human intelligence can answer any question. Our cognitive capacities are limited and specific to our nature as human beings.

Q: Can neural networks and deep learning expand our cognitive capacity and understanding of the world?

Neural networks and deep learning can expand our cognitive capacity to some extent, but they are not a fundamental expansion. They can approximate patterns and discover new insights, but they do not provide a deep understanding of the underlying scientific principles. Neural networks are more aligned with engineering and creating useful devices rather than gaining scientific knowledge.

Q: What are the fascinating aspects of language and linguistics that you have encountered in your lifetime?

The most fascinating aspect of language is the property of structure dependence. This property describes how language relies on the structure of sentences rather than just linear proximity. It is a deep and puzzling property of languages, and understanding it has provided insights into the nature of language itself. Structure dependence is universal across languages and has many consequences.

Q: What are the limits of deep learning and neural network-based machine learning?

The exact limits of deep learning and neural networks are hard to determine due to the opacity of the processes involved. However, it is clear that deep learning is primarily about finding patterns in large datasets, which can be useful but not necessarily scientific. Deep learning is more akin to engineering than science, and it often lacks critical experiments and theoretical explanations. It is a powerful tool for approximating knowledge but does not provide a deep understanding of the underlying phenomena.

Q: Does evil in society arise from institutions or our nature?

Evil in society arises from institutions rather than our inherent nature. Our nature can accommodate different kinds of institutions, and the specific institutions that have developed are a result of historical contingency, such as conquest and power dynamics. Human nature itself does not determine the specific institutions, but it influences the nature of institutions that arise.

Q: Is the meaning of our existence determined by our actions?

The meaning of our existence is subjective and determined by our actions. We create the significance and purpose of our lives through our own activities. There is no general answer to the meaning of existence, as it is a personal and individualistic concept.

Q: When looking back at your life, is there a moment that brought you happiness that you would love to relive?

Moments of falling in love and having children are the ones that bring happiness and fulfillment in life. Discoveries and insights in one's intellectual pursuits can also bring joy and excitement, but they often seem like common sense in retrospect. The progress made in the field of linguistics has come from being willing to be puzzled by things that initially seemed obvious, leading to new understandings and observations.

Q: Do you ponder the value of mortality and the briefness of our existence?

Noam Chomsky used to think about his mortality when he was around 12 years old. He was worried about his consciousness disappearing and wondered if the entire universe would disappear with it. Although no answer was found, he eventually stopped being bothered by it. The fleeting nature of our existence is a natural part of life, and while the question of mortality remains unanswered, it does not consume his thoughts anymore.

Q: What is the meaning of our existence on Earth?

The meaning or significance of our existence is something we determine through our own actions and choices. There is no general answer to this question, as each person shapes their own meaning based on their activities and contributions to the world.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Lex Fridman shares a personal anecdote about riding in an elevator with Noam Chomsky and expresses his admiration for the scholar.

  • Noam Chomsky discusses language as an inner system in the brain, the structure of language, and the roots of language in human cognition.

  • Chomsky also talks about the limits of human cognition, the potential of neural networks in deep learning, and the role of institutions in society.

  • He reflects on significant moments in his intellectual life and discusses the meaning of existence and mortality.

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