Douglas Richard Hofstadter (born February 15, 1945 in New York, New York) is an American academic whose research focuses on consciousness, thinking and creativity. He is best known for Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, first published in 1979, for which he was awarded the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.
Hofstadter's many interests include music, visual art, the mind, creativity, consciousness, self-reference, translation and mathematics. He has numerous recursive sequences and geometric constructions named after him.
At the University of Michigan and Indiana University, he co-authored, with Melanie Mitchell, a computational model of "high-level perception" — Copycat — and several other models of analogy-making and cognition. The Copycat project was subsequently extended under the name "Metacat" by Hofstadter's doctoral student James Marshall. The Letter Spirit project, implemented by Gary McGraw and John Rehling, aims to model the act of artistic creativity by designing stylistically uniform "gridfonts" (typefaces limited to a grid). Other more recent models are Phaeaco (implemented by Harry Foundalis) and SeqSee (Abhijit Mahabal), which model high-level perception and analogy-making in the microdomains of Bongard problems and number sequences, respectively.
Hofstadter collects and studies cognitive errors (largely but not solely speech errors), "bon mots" (spontaneous humorous quips), and analogies of all sorts, and his long-time observation of these diverse products of cognition, and his theories about the mechanisms that underlie them, have exerted a powerful influence on the architectures of the computational models developed by himself and FARG members.
All FARG computational models share certain key principles, among which are: that human thinking is carried out by thousands of independent small actions in parallel, biased by the concepts that are currently activated; that activation spreads from activated concepts to less activated "neighbor concepts"; that there is a "mental temperature" that regulates the degree of randomness in the parallel activity; that promising avenues tend to be explored more rapidly than unpromising ones. FARG models also have an overarching philosophy that all cognition is built from the making of analogies. The computational architectures that share these precepts are called "active symbols" architectures.
Provoked by predictions of a technological singularity (the hypothetical moment at which artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence), Hofstadter has both organized and participated in several public discussions of the topic. At Indiana University in 1999 he organized such a symposium, and in April 2000, he organized a larger symposium entitled "Spiritual Robots" at Stanford University, in which he moderated a panel consisting of Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Kevin Kelly, Ralph Merkle, Bill Joy, Frank Drake, John Holland, John Koza. Hofstadter was also an invited panelist at the first "Singularity Summit," held at Stanford in May 2006. Hofstadter expressed doubt about the likelihood of the singularity coming to pass in the foreseeable future.
Hofstadter's thesis about consciousness, first expressed in GEB but also present in several of his later books, is that it is an emergent consequence of seething lower-level activity in the brain. In GEB he draws an analogy between the social organization of a colony of ants and the mind seen as a coherent "colony" of neurons. In particular, Hofstadter claims that our sense of having (or being) an "I" comes from the abstract pattern he terms a "strange loop", which is an abstract cousin of such concrete phenomena as audio and video feedback, and which Hofstadter has defined as "a level-crossing feedback loop". The prototypical example of this abstract notion is the self-referential structure at the core of Gödel's incompleteness theorems. Hofstadter's 2007 book I Am a Strange Loop carries his vision of consciousness considerably further, including the idea that each human "I" is distributed over numerous brains, rather than being limited to precisely one brain.
In April 2007, while replying to the following question by Deborah Solomon in Questions for Douglas Hofstadter: "Your entry in Wikipedia says that your work has inspired many students to begin careers in computing and artificial intelligence," he replied "The entry is filled with inaccuracies, and it kind of depresses me." When asked why he didn't fix it, he replied, "The next day someone will fix it back.
In 1988 Dutch director Piet Hoenderdos created a docudrama about Hofstadter and his ideas entitled "Victim of the Brain" based on The Mind's I. It includes interviews with Hofstadter about his work. In 2010: Odyssey Two, Arthur C. Clarke's first sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL 9000 is described by Dr. Chandra as being caught in a "Hofstadter-Moebius loop". Hofstadter's book Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought was the first book sold by Amazon.com.
Both inside and outside his professional work, Hofstadter is driven by a pursuit of beauty. He seeks beautiful mathematical patterns, beautiful explanations, beautiful typefaces, beautiful sonic patterns in poetry, and so forth. Hofstadter has said of himself, "I'm someone who has one foot in the world of humanities and arts, and the other foot in the world of science." He has had several exhibitions of his artworks in various university art galleries. These shows have featured large collections of his gridfonts, his ambigrams (pieces of calligraphy created with two readings, either of which is usually obtained from the other by rotating or reflecting the ambigram, but sometimes simply by "oscillation", like the Necker Cube or the rabbit/duck figure of Joseph Jastrow), and his "Whirly Art" (music-inspired visual patterns realized using shapes based on various alphabets from India). (The term "ambigram" was invented by Hofstadter in 1984 and has since been taken up by many ambigrammists all over the world.)
Hofstadter has composed numerous pieces for piano, and a few for piano and voice. He created an audio CD with the title DRH/JJ, which includes all these compositions performed primarily by pianist Jane Jackson, but with a few performed by Brian Jones, Dafna Barenboim, Gitanjali Mathur and himself.
Hofstadter's writing is characterized by an intense interaction between form and content, as is exemplified by the 20 dialogues in GEB, many of which simultaneously talk about and imitate strict musical forms used by Bach, such as canons and fugues. Most of Hofstadter's books are characterized by some kind of structural alternation in GEB between dialogues and chapters, in The Mind's I between selections and reflections, in Metamagical Themas between Chapters and Postscripts, and so forth. Both in his writing and in his teaching, Hofstadter stresses the concrete, constantly using examples and analogies, and avoids the abstract. Typical of the courses he teaches is his seminar "Group Theory and Galois Theory Visualized", in which abstract mathematical ideas are rendered as concrete as possible. He puts great effort into making ideas clear and visual, and asserts that when he teaches, if his students do not understand something, it is never their fault but always his own.
Hofstadter is passionate about languages. He has studied many of them, and speaks them to varying degrees. In addition to English, his mother tongue, he speaks French and Italian fluently (the language spoken at home with his children is Italian). At various times in his life, he has studied (in descending order of level of fluency reached) German, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Mandarin, Dutch, Polish, and Hindi. His love of sounds pushes him to strive to minimize, and ideally get rid of, any foreign accent.
Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language is a long book devoted to language and translation, especially poetry translation, and one of its leitmotifs is a set of some 88 translations of "Ma Mignonne", a highly constrained poem by sixteenth-century French poet Clément Marot. In this book, Hofstadter jokingly describes himself as "pilingual" (meaning that the sum total of the varying degrees of mastery of all the languages that he's studied comes to 3.14159...), as well as an "oligoglot" (someone who speaks "a few" languages).
In 1999, the bicentennial year of Russian poet and writer Alexander Pushkin, Hofstadter published a verse translation of Pushkin's classic novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. It is highly constrained and filled with many types of sonic pattern. Aside from Eugene Onegin, Hofstadter has translated many other poems (always respecting their formal constraints), and two other novels (in prose): La Chamade (That Mad Ache) by French writer Françoise Sagan, and La Scoperta dell'Alba (The Discovery of Dawn) by Walter Veltroni, the head of the Partito Democratico in Italy. Both of these translated novels are slated for imminent publication.
Hofstadter is related by marriage to the evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould: Hofstadter's paternal aunt was married to Gould's maternal uncle. Hofstadter is a vegetarian.
The dedication for I Am A Strange Loop is: "To my sister Laura, who can understand, and to our sister Molly, who cannot." Hofstadter explains in the Preface that his younger sister Molly never developed the ability to speak or understand language.