Deep Learning, Alien Knowledge and Other UFOs

Deep learning generates observations we can’t explain. Is this the end of theory or a rallying cry for deep explanations? A response to David Weinberger.

Peter Sweeney
Published in
8 min readMay 17, 2017

I initially dismissed David Weinberger’s report of alien knowledge as tabloid sensationalism. But as the recommendations for his essay accumulated, it gave me pause. Weinberger’s post rewards a close reading.

My intent here is to present a more incremental, less revolutionary perspective on AI and machine learning. I believe the historical antecedents paint a far more earthly, but perhaps no less sensational, picture.

I also believe Weinberger is accurately expressing the concerns (and possibly even hopes) of many within the community, expert and layperson alike. Many of the questions I raise here also surfaced in the comments to Weinberger’s post. He’s been generous with his responses, so I’ve tried to incorporate that extended discussion.

The end of theory and the scientific method?

Weinberger begins by resurrecting Chris Anderson’s argument from 2008, announcing the end of theory and the scientific method as we know it. It’s a shaky foundation. As Weinberger recalls, Anderson’s piece “kicked up a little storm.” Peter Norvig even maintained that Anderson “was being provocative, presenting a caricature of an idea, even though he knew the idea was not really true.”

“All models are wrong, and increasingly you can succeed without them.” To set the record straight: That’s a silly statement, I didn’t say it, and I disagree with it. The ironic thing is that even the article’s author, Chris Anderson, doesn’t believe the idea.

While crediting Anderson for surfacing an important development, Norvig asserted, “that does not mean we throw out the scientific method.”

I wouldn’t try building on an argument that Anderson disavowed and Norvig called silly. Yet Weinberger not only dismisses objections to Anderson’s essay as “quaint”, he leaps dramatically into an abyss of “alien knowledge”.



Peter Sweeney

Entrepreneur and inventor | 4 startups, 80+ patents | Writes on the science and philosophy of problem solving. | @petersweeney