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NASA on Sanskrit & Artificial Intelligence by Rick Briggs

Vyasa Houston M. A.

The extraordinary thing about Sanskrit is that it offers direct accessibility to anyone to that elevated plane where the two —mathematics and music, brain and heart, analytical and intuitive, scientific and spiritual— become one.

It is tempting to think of them as computer scientists without the hardware, but a possible explanation is that a search for clear, unambigous understanding is inherent in the human being.

Prof. Weizenbaum obtained his Ph.D. degree from the Wayne State University in Detroit. After a few years in the industry, he entered the Massachussets Institute of Technology where he has held faculty positions since 1955. He is currently a professor in the department of Computer Sciences at MIT. His current research interests include Artificial Intelligence and social implications of computing and cybernetics.

Shastric Sanskrit

The sentence:

(1) “Caitra goes to the village.” (graamam gacchati caitra)

receives in the analysis given by an eighteenth-century Sanskrit Grammarian from Maharashtra, India, the following paraphrase:

(2) “There is an activity which leads to a connection-activity which has as Agent no one other than Caitra, specified by singularity, [which] is taking place in the present and which has as Object something not different from ‘village’.”

The author, Nagesha, is one of a group of three or four prominent theoreticians who stand at the end of a long tradition of investigation. Its beginnings date to the middle of the first millennium B.C. when the morphology and phonological structure of the language, as well as the framework for its syntactic description were codified by Panini. His successors elucidated the brief, algebraic formulations that he had used as grammatical rules and where possible tried to improve upon them. A great deal of fervent grammatical research took place between the fourth century B.C and the fourth century A.D. and culminated in the seminal work, the Vaiakyapadiya by Bhartrhari. Little was done subsequently to advance the study of syntax, until the so-called “New Grammarian” school appeared in the early part of the sixteenth century with the publication of Bhattoji Dikshita’s Vaiyakarana-bhusanasara and its commentary by his relative Kaundabhatta, who worked from Benares. Nagesha (1730-1810) was responsible for a major work, the Vaiyakaranasiddhantamanjusa, or Treasury of dejinitive statements of grammarians, which was condensed later into the earlier described work. These books have not yet been translated.

The reasoning of these authors is couched in a style of language that had been developed especially to formulate logical relations with scientific precision. It is a terse, very condensed form of Sanskrit, which paradoxically at times becomes so abstruse that a commentary is necessary to clarify it.

One of the most distinguished computer scientists in the world today, Prof. J. Weizenbaum is known for his major contributions to the field of Artificial Intelligence. He authored the famous ELIZA program (fore-runner of DOCTOR and other similar programs) which startlingly demonstrated the possibilities for building ‘intelligent effects’ into a computer through programming. Weizenbaum is also the author of Computer Power and Human Reasoning from Calculation to Judgement in which he critically examines the far-reaching social implications of research and philosophical assumptions regarding artificial intelligence.

Until recently, modern science, seen as a religion, lacked a deity suitable as an object of worship. The machine, which is generally pictured as something that has gears, moving parts, and so on, has existed for a long time now. To modern man the machine certainly represents power, control, mastery over nature-in other words, attributes a worshipable deity should have. But the machine lacks mystery. In fact, it often demystifies in the sense that people believe that most anything can be transformed, metaphorically at least, into the form of a machine and then understood as such. The machine has become an almost universally applicable metaphor that demystifies both itself and the thing to which it refers. This thinking holds true for both intellectuals of all persuasions as well as for ordinary people. Perhaps most people today think a thing is not understood until it has been reduced to a mechanical process.

I think that this phenomenon has contributed to science’s inability to provide an idol which the faithful can worship as truly representative of their common faith. Now recently, within my lifetime, the computer has appeared, and it seems to me that the computer fills that need. Modern man has seen that machines which physically destroy and reconstruct his environment — the steam-shovel, for example — are made in his own image. The steam-shovel has an arm and a hand, and it digs into the ground, picks up objects and so forth. Clearly, it is a kind of imitation of a certain aspect of man. But the computer takes things a step farther. When instructing a computer to think (if I may use that term for a moment) in imitation of human thought, we cross a subtle line.


NASA on Sanskrit & Artificial Intelligence by Rick Briggs.

Renowned physicist and Nobel laureate, Erwin Schrodinger, father of Quantum Mechanics, writes: “No personal God can form part of a world model that has only become accessible at the cost of removing everything personal from it.” (1) We find that almost all of the scientists have chosen to rule out god from the very beginning of their research.

Presumably scientists seek to improve their position of knowledge and better satisfy their needs (pleasures) in this world by controlling nature. Unfortunately we find that so-called scientific progress more often brings an unexpected toll, a negative reaction from the material energy.

Their analysis of language casts doubt on the humanistic distinction between natural and artificial intelligence, and may throw light on how research in AI may finally solve the natural language understanding and machine translation problems.

Bhatta, Nagesha (1963) Vaiyakarana-Siddhanta-Laghu-Manjusa, Benares (Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office).

Nilsson, Nils J. Principles of Artificial Intelligence. Palo Alto: Tioga Publishing Co

Bhatta, Nagesha (1974) Parama-Lalu-Manjusa Edited by Pandit Alakhadeva Sharma, Benares (Chowkhambha Sanskrit Series Office).

Rumelhart, D E. & D A. Norman (1973) Active Semantic Networks as a model of human memory. IJCAI.

Wang, William S-Y (1967) “Final Administrative Report to the National Science Foundation.” Project for Machine Translation. University of California, Berkeley. (A biblzographical summary of work done in Berkeley on a program to translate Chinese.)

[THE AI MAGAZINE Spring, 1985 #39]

Considering Sanskrit’s status as a spiritual language, a further implication of this discovery is that the age-old dichotomy between religion and science is an entirely unjustified one. It is also relevant to note that in the last decade, physicists have begun to comment on the striking similarities between their own discoveries and the discoveries made thousands of years ago in India which went on to form the basis of most Eastern religions.