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How you communicate matters

kspeakman profile image Kasey Speakman ・1 min read

I happened to run across an interesting bit of AI history. I found it relevant with recent events, such as the Linux code of conduct discussions. Learning from history is faster than repeating it.

The linked article is worth a read, but the TLDR goes like this. In the 60s, computer scientists were betting on symbol processing as the path to strong AI -- human-like machine intelligence. An MIT philosophy professor named Hubert Dreyfus quickly realized that their aspirations were misguided. And so he set about torpedoing their ideas. History shows that he was correct for the most part, but nobody learned from his critiques simply because of the way he went about them. The industry independently arrived at the same conclusions through trial and error at a later time. Dreyfus might have advanced AI research significantly if he had expressed his criticisms differently. To quote the conclusion of the article...

McCorduck wrote, "His derisiveness has been so provoking that he has estranged anyone he might have enlightened. And that's a pity." Daniel Crevier stated that "time has proven the accuracy and perceptiveness of some of Dreyfus's comments. Had he formulated them less aggressively, constructive actions they suggested might have been taken much earlier."

Simply being correct is not enough. How I communicate with people directly affects whether they hear what I am saying. If the goal really is to improve things, spending personal effort to keep it above the flames is essential.

Note to self: work on this.

/∞

Discussion (15)

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vinistock profile image
Vinicius Stock • Edited

Great post!

I have worked with competent people before who were just terrible at communicating.

Despite having good ideas and clever solutions, they had trouble being taken seriously, influecing others and getting their message across. Mostly because of the way they expressed themselves.

Sometimes, a simple solution well communicated will get picked over a sophisticated one poorly promoted. Communication matters!

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mortoray profile image
edA‑qa mort‑ora‑y

I don't want to dismiss that some people are bad at communicating. I would like to point out that communication is never a single-sided activity.

A good listener can often overcome the problems of a bad speaker and find a way to communicate clearly. Arguments, and vehemence, often start as a result of problems with both the speaker and the listener.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

In this day, this is all still relevant... plus I’ll add design as a correlary. These days great ideas need great design. I see so many technically interesting projects with zero design aesthetic that definitely turns off potential users.

Not everyone is naturally great at design, but it’s an area you can’t have contempt for. It needs to be considered as a big part of communicating good things.

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mortoray profile image
edA‑qa mort‑ora‑y

I'll add a corollary to that for the aesthetics design people: don't have contempt for programming, and don't assume a programmer knows nothing about design.

Many of problems in UX come about because of a failure to properly communicate between these two highly overlapping fields.

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kspeakman profile image
Kasey Speakman Author • Edited

I can get on board with what you are saying up to a point. Tech progress is frequently made by critiques of existing tech and ideas. For example, Raft is largely born out of problems identified in Paxos. Where I hesitate is when the critiques get personal. Dreyfus papers insinuated that the AI researchers themselves were charlatans (he compared them to alchemists IIRC). Whereas history proves both that Dreyfus's theories of learning were better, it also demonstrates that AI researchers could accept when they were wrong and move on. This is not the mark of fortune tellers, but of exercising the scientific method.

So I do like to see people pointing out the downsides of the hype. (In fact, I look for these to try to get a fair picture for every tech I research.) But we don't need some of the tactics Dreyfus displayed. On the other side of the coin, we also don't need people to be so attached to their tech that they (inaccurately) interpret logical critiques as personal attacks.

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elmuerte profile image
Michiel Hendriks • Edited

I do not believe it matters.

It is akin to convincing religious people that they are worshiping the wrong/a god.

People who do not want to listen, will not listen no matter how you communicate.

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kspeakman profile image
Kasey Speakman Author • Edited

I can't speak for the specific people involved in AI history, but in general, scientific pursuits do not work like that. But even people searching for the truth/progress may not hear ideas when put in aggressive and personally attacking words.

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mortoray profile image
edA‑qa mort‑ora‑y

I've worked and met many scientist types. You'd think they'd be more open minded, but as a whole they share the same breadth of personalities as the general public. Some of open minded and flexible, others are dogmatic and aggressive.

A lot of the failures in science come down to the similar problems of people that other fields have. It's an endless war of personalities and politics rather than real science.

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kspeakman profile image
Kasey Speakman Author • Edited

Seems about right. People have flaws, regardless of profession.

I wasn’t thinking only about sciences, but anything that is approached scientifically. I like to think I approach work in that way. But even still, the best ideas can get lost when packaged in an offensive demeanor. I’ve done my fair share of that unfortunately, even when genuinely trying to help. Especially online... in person what I say tends to be softened by nonverbal cues.

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elmuerte profile image
Michiel Hendriks

Do you think it started with an aggressive tone, or is this what is the reported end result?

Often people only remember the aggressive end, not the 10 civil arguments before it.

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kspeakman profile image
Kasey Speakman Author

Yes, I believe it started with an aggressive tone. The Wikipedia article has the papers referenced.

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notyoyoma profile image
notyoyoma

Yes, and we also need to learn to listen better.

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jochemstoel profile image
Jochem Stoel

Sorry, what?

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antonrich profile image
Anton

So true. Important factor to consider, some people won't listen no matter what.

"I'm not the mouth for these ears" - Thus spoke Zarathustra.

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