“Funding artificial intelligence is real stupidity.” -- John R. Pierce

Was this computer pioneer way off the mark? – or was there important sub-text there?

Pierce was an expert for machine translation in the 1960s. He coauthored the following paper Pierce, John R., and John B. Carroll. "Language and machines: Computers in translation and linguistics." (1966). That means, he worked on the domain of AI but explained his subject as useless. Perhaps Marvin Minsky, Rodney Brooks and Sebastian Thrun would agree to him?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ A quick Google for the phrase only gets me to confirm John Pierce's identity and that the quote is associated with him. Any chance you could add the context of when/where it was said? That would help in analysing its meaning and accuracy when said, and if anything salient has changed. $\endgroup$ Nov 2 '18 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ “Artificial intelligence has the same relation to intelligence as artificial flowers have to flowers.” -- David Parnas – I can’t post this as an edit to my question, because someone would say I was ‘criticizing’, but I thought it should be given for the sake of completeness. I ran across it just now within this set of quotations: motd.ambians.com/quotes.php/name/linux_science/toc_id/1-1-30/s/… $\endgroup$ Nov 5 '18 at 1:30
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your reply. So really I see you have two approaches to the question taking it forward (1) We wait for someone who can answer based on the original context, because they have more information (2) We take the the original quote and re-interpret it with more recent sensibilities about the subject of AI. I strongly prefer (1), because there are too many possible interpretations and too much personal opinion involved to attempt (2) IMO. However, if (1) is successful, that will probably lead you to a brief lesson of some period of history in AI - is that what you are looking for? $\endgroup$ Nov 6 '18 at 8:39

John R. Pierce led the Bell Labs research team that created the first transistor and gave it its name. He was later the Chief Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech.

His relationship to artificial intelligence research was mainly in regard to language translation. He wrote the following.1

The computer has opened up to linguists a host of challenges, partial insights, and potentialities. ... Certainly, language is second to no phenomenon in importance. ... The new linguistics presents an attractive as well as an extremely important challenge. ... The most reasonable government source of support for research in computational linguistics is the National Science Foundation. ... We estimate that work on a reasonably large scale ... would be justified at ... an annual expenditure of \$2.5 to \$3 million.

No official record of Pierce stating unequivocally that all artificial intelligence funding is stupid can be found. Nils J. Nilsson's The Quest for Artificial Intelligence quotes Donald Knuth stating this.

John R. Pierce, whom I have already mentioned in connection with the ALPAC report on machine translation (in section 7.2) and his negative comments about speech understanding (p 222) wrote me a very short letter in which he stated,

Concerning artificial intelligence, I believe I invented the slogan, "Artificial intelligence is real stupidity."


I resent artificial intelligence because I feel that it is unfair to computers. But then, artificial intelligence people did devise LISP, which is pretty good.

The letter did not elaborate on the slogan or why AI is "unfair to computers."

The paragraphs that may have drawn the most negative attention (and possibly fabricated quips) are these.2

It would be too simple to say that work in speech recognition is carried out simply because one can get money for it. That is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. We are safe in asserting that speech recognition is attractive to money. The attraction is perhaps similar to the attraction of schemes for turning water into gasoline, extracting gold from the sea, curing cancer, or going to the moon. One doesn't attract thoughtlessly given dollars by means of schemes for cutting the cost of soap by 10%. To sell suckers, one uses deceit and offers glamor.

It is clear that glamor and any deceit in the field of speech recognition blind the takers of funds as much as they blind the givers of funds. Thus, we may pity workers whom we cannot respect. People who work in the field are full of innocent (in their own view) enthusiasm.

In hindsight, we can see a few things Pierce called correctly.

  • Technology projections that are not based on realistic assessments of progress that has already been made and verified in the correspondence between theory, experimental results, and penetration into a market that exercises the technology in the real world can be unreliable in terms of both feasibility and cost in time and money.
  • Natural language translation and comprehension are important areas of research but research results from short term investments will not be substantial. The problem complexity is high.

Whether Pierce meant that artificial intelligence is real stupidity literally or whether he was referring to the unrealistic expectations planted by researchers at MIT to obtain defense funding after the launch of Sputnik, we may never know for sure, but is easy to guess.

The comment about LISP is an obvious reference to Marvin Minsky's lab, which allegedly did not produce for the U.S. government what was promised. It is merely an allegation because research failures can be fabrication to assist in classifying publicly funded research.

I say this as one who spent time with those in the closely linked AI lab at the United Technologies Research Center. Everyone had national security clearances, and we all saw fabricated successes and fabricated failures. There is good reason for mixing in misinformation when espionage is a known phenomenon.

Based on the way Pierce commonly wrote, the unfairness to computers was likely a satirical comment about research funding pitches and the unrealistic expectation they placed on the speed of computer technology development. He is certainly not a person that would anthropomorphize a computer witlessly.

Pierce was given the leading role at the JPL because he gained credibility among fiscal stakeholders by telling the truth while at Bell Labs. Some of the futurists in leading technology roles today might benefit from that history.


[1] Language and Machines, Pierce, 1966, ALPAC report to the U.S. National Science Foundation

[2] Whither Speech Recognition?, Pierce, 1969, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Vol. 46, No. 4


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.