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What is Sym Sys?

A Science of the Mind

In the 17th century physics was a new frontier of science. In the 18th century chemistry had the same excitement. In the latter half of the 20th century, a new science emerged. The same sense of adventure inspires some of the brightest minds to explore this new frontier: the study of symbolic systems.

Symbolic Systems attacks age-old questions about the relation between mind and the world, questions like the following. What is information? What is intelligence? How are they related? Is intelligence more than information processing? Does intelligence require a mind? For that matter, what is a mind? How are minds related to brains? Does intelligence require some sort of biologically-based brain? Or is it possible to create artifacts that process information in a way that we can call them intelligent?

What is the relation of mind to the external world? Is the world a creation of mind? Or does the mind explore and discover facts about an independently existing world? Or is the relation more subtle than either of these suggest? What is consciousness? Does intelligence require consciousness? And how does language and meaning fit into the picture? Does thought require language or some other form of representation, or vice versa? What is it that makes language meaningful? And what is the meaning that language is so full of?

These questions have puzzled thinkers for thousands of years. But beginning in the 1950s, scientists from a number of disciplines began to converge on a scientific approach to these puzzles.

Probably the most significant single factor in creating this new field was the development of the modern digital computer, dating back to work by the logician Alan Turing. Turing directly challenged the idea that thought and intelligence requires a brain. He believed that it should be possible to create a machine that was capable of full-fledged thought. Although Turing's dream is far from realized, his work led to major steps in the development of the modern computer.

The computer has launched the study of mind, information, and intelligence into a new era in much the same way that Galileo's use of the telescope launched the new science of astronomy. By allowing us to build powerful simulations of various kinds of intelligent action, it provides a methodology for the rigorous probing of questions about the nature of mind, meaning, and intelligence.

But in the Symbolic Systems Program (SSP), the computer is more than just a tool for simulating the mind. It is part of the very subject matter of the field. Why? Because computer systems, robots, and people are all examples of symbolic systems, agents that use meaningful symbols to represent the world around them so as to communicate and generally act in the world. The notions of symbol, meaning, representation, information, and action are at the heart of the study of symbolic systems. This common core of notions arises in a variety of fields including artificial intelligence, computer science, cognitive psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and symbolic logic.

As we have seen, the questions tackled by this new field are as old as thought itself. This century's revolution stems from the advent of the computer and the associated ability to formulate these questions in mathematically rigorous new ways. This revolution has arisen simultaneously in several more traditional disciplines. As a result researchers in various fields who were pursuing similar goals discovered that by sharing their findings they could build cross-disciplinary theories that would shed light on their common questions.

But the crossing of disciplinary boundaries can be difficult. Contemporary researchers, trained in the context of traditional disciplines, frequently find it hard to assimilate needed concepts in another discipline. One of the beliefs of the creators of the Symbolic Systems Program is that it is the student of this new field, acquainted early on in his or her intellectual training with the philosophical and logical foundations, linguistic theories and techniques, facility and skill in the theory of computation and manipulation and use of computers, who will take the study of symbolic systems to new heights.

The Symbolic Systems Program offers students the opportunity to focus on these issues in their course of studies. Its majors are required to take courses in the Departments of Computer Science, Linguistics, Philosophy, and Psychology, as well as courses designed specifically for the program. Its goal is to prepare students with the vocabulary, theoretical background, and technical skills to understand and participate in contemporary interdisciplinary research into questions about language, information, and intelligence—both human and machine. The curriculum offers a combination of traditional humanistic approaches to these questions as well as a training and familiarity with exciting contemporary developments in the science and technology of computation.

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