Learning other fields

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Learning other fields

It used to be the case that you could do AI without knowing anything except AI, and some people still seem to do that. But increasingly, good research requires that you know a lot about several related fields. Computational feasibility by itself doesn't provide enough constraint on what intelligence is about. Other related fields give other forms of constraint, for example experimental data, which you can get from psychology. More importantly, other fields give you new tools for thinking and new ways of looking at what intelligence is about. Another reason for learning other fields is that AI does not have its own standards of research excellence, but has borrowed from other fields. Mathematics takes theorems as progress; engineering asks whether an object works reliably; psychology demands repeatable experiments; philosophy rigorous arguments; and so forth. All these criteria are sometimes applied to work in AI, and adeptness with them is valuable in evaluating other people's work and in deepening and defending your own.

Over the course of the six or so years it takes to get a PhD at MIT, you can get a really solid grounding in one or two non-AI fields, read widely in several more, and have at least some understanding of the lot of them. Here are some ways to learn about a field you don't know much about:

Take a graduate course. This is solidest, but is often not an efficient way to go about it.

Read a textbook. Not a bad approach, but textbooks are usually out of date, and generally have a high ratio of words to content.

Find out what the best journal in the field is, maybe by talking to someone who knows about it. Then skim the last few years worth and follow the reference trees. This is usually the fastest way to get a feel of what is happening, but can give you a somewhat warped view.

Find out who's most famous in the field and read their books.

Hang out with grad students in the field.

Go to talks. You can find announcements for them on departmental bulletin boards.

Check out departments other than MIT's. MIT will give you a very skewed view of, for example, linguistics or psychology. Compare the Harvard course catalog. Drop by the graduate office over there, read the bulletin boards, pick up any free literature.

Now for the subjects related to AI you should know about.

Computer science is the technology we work with. The introductory graduate courses you are required to take will almost certainly not give you an adequate understanding of it, so you'll have to learn a fair amount by reading beyond them. All the areas of computer science-theory, architectures, systems, languages, etc.---are relevant.

Mathematics is probably the next most important thing to know. It's critical to work in vision and robotics; for central-systems work it usually isn't directly relevant, but it teaches you useful ways of thinking. You need to be able to read theorems, and an ability to prove them will impress most people in the field. Very few people can learn math on their own; you need a gun at your head in the form of a course, and you need to do the problem sets, so being a listener is not enough. Take as much math as you can early, while you still can; other fields are more easily picked up later.

Computer science is grounded in discrete mathematics: algebra, graph theory, and the like. Logic is very important if you are going to work on reasoning. It's not used that much at MIT, but at Stanford and elsewhere it is the dominant way of thinking about the mind, so you should learn enough of it that you can make and defend an opinion for yourself. One or two graduate courses in the MIT math department is probably enough. For work in perception and robotics, you need continuous as well as discrete math. A solid background in analysis, differential geometry and topology will provide often-needed skills. Some statistics and probability is just generally useful.

Cognitive psychology mostly shares a worldview with AI, but practitioners have rather different goals and do experiments instead of writing programs. Everyone needs to know something about this stuff. Molly Potter teaches a good graduate intro course at MIT.

Developmental psychology is vital if you are going to do learning work. It's also more generally useful, in that it gives you some idea about which things should be hard and easy for a human-level intelligence to do. It also suggests models for cognitive architecture. For example, work on child language acquisition puts substantial constraints on linguistic processing theories. Susan Carey teaches a good graduate intro course at MIT.

``Softer'' sorts of psychology like psychoanalysis and social psychology have affected AI less, but have significant potential. They give you very different ways of thinking about what people are. Social ``sciences'' like sociology and anthropology can serve a similar role; it's useful to have a lot of perspectives. You're on your own for learning this stuff. Unfortunately, it's hard to sort out what's good from bad in these fields without a connection to a competent insider. Check out Harvard: it's easy for MIT students to cross-register for Harvard classes.

Neuroscience tells us about human computational hardware. With the recent rise of computational neuroscience and connectionism, it's had a lot of influence on AI. MIT's Brain and Behavioral Sciences department offers good courses on vision (Hildreth, Poggio, Richards, Ullman) motor control (Hollerbach, Bizzi) and general neuroscience (9.015, taught by a team of experts).

Linguistics is vital if you are going to do natural language work. Besides that, it exposes a lot of constraint on cognition in general. Linguistics at MIT is dominated by the Chomsky school. You may or may not find this to your liking. Check out George Lakoff's recent book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things as an example of an alternative research program.

Engineering, especially electrical engineering, has been taken as a domain by a lot of AI research, especially at MIT. No accident; our lab puts a lot of stock in building programs that clearly do something, like analyzing a circuit. Knowing EE is also useful when it comes time to build a custom chip or debug the power supply on your Lisp machine.

Physics can be a powerful influence for people interested in perception and robotics.

Philosophy is the hidden framework in which all AI is done. Most work in AI takes implicit philosophical positions without knowing it. It's better to know what your positions are. Learning philosophy also teaches you to make and follow certain sorts of arguments that are used in a lot of AI papers. Philosophy can be divided up along at least two orthogonal axes. Philosophy is usually philosophy of something; philosophy of mind and language are most relevant to AI. Then there are schools. Very broadly, there are two very different superschools: analytic and Continental philosophy. Analytic philosophy of mind for the most part shares a world view with most people in AI. Continental philosophy has a very different way of seeing which takes some getting used to. It has been used by Dreyfus to argue that AI is impossible. More recently, a few researchers have seen it as compatible with AI and as providing an alternative approach to the problem. Philosophy at MIT is of the analytical sort, and of a school that has been heavily influenced by Chomsky's work in linguistics.

This all seems like a lot to know about, and it is. There's a trap here: thinking ``if only I knew more X, this problem would be easy,'' for all X. There's always more to know that could be relevant. Eventually you have to sit down and solve the problem.

A whole lot of people at MIT