Science, technology & design

Artificial and intelligent

Fifty years ago, the father of modern computer science, British mathematician Alan Turing, suggested computers would be 'fully intelligent' when you could submit statements in natural language - 'Who's going to win the next election?' - and not be able to tell whether the responses came from another person or a machine. This became known as the 'Turing test'- to see whether a machine is conscious and can think. No computer has ever come close to passing the test. Recently, though, Ray Kurzweil made a public bet with Mitchell Kapor, the founder of Lotus, that a computer would pass the Turing test by 2029. Kurzweil has based this estimation on ideas expressed in his book The Singularity Is Near, in essence that intelligence will expand in a limitless exponential manner once we achieve a certain level of advancement in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics and integration of that technology with human biology. But, where Kurzweil sees computers doubling in speed and power and programmers working feverishly to this end, Kapor believes human beings differ so totally from machines that the test will never be passed, not least because we are housed in bodies that feel pleasure and pain and accumulate experience that much of our knowledge is tacit rather than expressed. Others like neurophysiologist Bill Calvin suggest the human brain is so 'buggy' that computers will never be able to emulate it. Ultimately though that might not be the point, for as some have suggested - like James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds - the Internet is already fostering an unanticipated form of artificial intelligence, a highly-efficient marketplace for ideas, reputations and information known as 'collective intelligence' or the 'hive mind'. In the same way Adam Smith suggested buyers and sellers, each pursuing his own interest, would together produce more goods, more efficiently, than under any other arrangement, so too online suppliers of collective intelligence - blogs and Wikipedia for instance - can create more knowledge, with less bias and over a wider span of disciplines than any group of experts could. As a counterpoint to this argument, Jaron Lanier, whose claim to fame is coining the term 'virtual reality', has now predicted that collective intelligence will have the same deadening and anticreative effect as political collectivism (in his essay 'Digital Maoism' in the online publication Edge). Either way, we have to recognise what computers can do already, and how that eventually may change us. An obvious achievement in Internet intelligence is the retrieval of 'spot knowledge', as the antidote to memory loss while enabling us to clear the mind of 'minutiae' so we can focus on things at a higher level. But while some dream of a life in which embedded reminders mean we never have to worry about forgetting - and forget about worrying!? - others wonder what will happen to our cognitive functions if first-stage thinking is all but taken care of for us. (You can read the stoush between Kurzweil and Kapor at
Ref: The Atlantic Monthly (US), October 2006, 'Artificial Intelligentsia', J. Fallows,
Search words: intelligence, AI, networks, collectivism
Trend tags: connectivity

The robots are coming... maybe

Over the past four decades, popular culture has obsessed over the idea of machine intelligence enslaving its creators. Yet still we push on in our quest to build machines that emulate our own appearance, movement and intelligence, intoxicated by the challenge to build human-level androids / robots - the ultimate challenge in artificial intelligence. (The word 'robot' originated in 1921 when Czech dramatist Karel Capek first used the term in his play R.U.R. - for 'Rossum's Universal Robots' - creating it from the Czech word "robota", meaning obligatory work.) Ray Kurzweil believes that by 2029 (a big year it seems!) we will have both the hardware and software to achieve human-level intelligence in a machine, construct fully humanlike androids and send tiny robots into our bodies and brains to keep us healthy and to augment our intellect - at this point we will have become part machine ourselves. This too might be the point that we start to worry about the future envisaged by so many movies in the 'tech noir' genre, from The Terminator to Robocop and Blade Runner, in which the machines are out get us. Will it happen? Dr Greg Dolgopolov of the school of media, film and theatre at the University of New South Wales (Australia) believes many tech noir films are more about the nature of humanity. Likewise, Mike Jones of the Vector Lab at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum, suggests, "the technology is simply an excuse to tell a story about how we should be afraid of the worst parts of ourselves". Conversely, Wikipedia refers to a publicity brochure for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which claims "everything in 2001: A Space Odyssey can happen within the next three decades, and ... most of the picture will happen by the beginning of the next millennium". Today, talking computers are everywhere, with voice-recognition software used to book taxis, pay bills and order pizzas. Misunderstandings often occur though, particularly if you stray too far from what the software expects; and your order or payment hardly amounts to a conversation as there is no thought behind what he computer says. Likewise, computers can be programmed to display emotions such as empathy, "but the computer doesn't care how the user feels," says Nath Clark, a tech at the firm Holly that develops interactive voice response platforms. Claude Sammut, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of New South Wales, predicts that "little bits of things we call artificial intelligence will find their way into things we use every day". Speech-based systems, for instance, might pose a threat not to people's lives, but their livelihoods -receptionists might soon be a mere memory.
Ref: Popular Science (US), September 2006, 'The Future of Robotics', R. Kurzweil; Sydney Morning Herald (Aus), 21-22 October 2006, 'Rise of the Machines', A. Taylor. See also Popular Science (US) '5 paths to the walking, talking, pie-baking humanoid robot', G. Mone.
Search words: AI, robots, robotics, machines

Robot armies - not yet

America continues to fight an ideological and real war with the Middle East, Australia has its own 'arc of insecurity', with a rim of failing states in the South Pacific and tensions with Indonesia, and Europe negotiates a future in which the continent is externally dependent for 90 per cent of its oil and 80 per cent of its gas (by 2025), where strong migratory pressures due to the fast-growing populations in Africa and the Middle East are set to cause significant challenges to security. Meanwhile, policy makers have to contend with a shrinking recruitment pool for soldiers, round-the-clock media scrutiny and a public that is more clued-up and cautious about interventionist operations. Against this backdrop, a long-term military planning report (approved by defence ministers in Europe in October), has flagged the idea of replacing human soldiers with robots, suggesting one way of overcoming the problem of a dwindling recruitment pool (estimated to fall by over 15 per cent by 2025) is to resort to "increased automation, from warships to robots." The report suggests future conflicts will be "high-tech against low-tech, Goliath against David, centrally-controlled and network-enabled operations against the disruptive tactics of local or regional (and) transnational guerrilla groups", and acknowledges the objective of intervention in the future might not necessarily be "victory" in the traditional sense but instead "moderation". The report also flags the environmental impact of military action as a future issue, highlighted by the damage inflicted on the ancient city of Babylon by US-led military forces in Iraq in what has been labelled by some as an exercise of "cultural barbarism". Still, the war machine rolls on, with the US Congress recently approving a US$3.6 billion budget for weapons of the future called Future Combat Systems, which includes robotics. But despite the booming military market for robots and automated machines, the use of these devices is still reserved to securing dangerous areas, sniffing out bombs and chemicals, carry payloads and removing the injured from the battlefield. Such machines won't replace human fighters anytime soon, but many of the devices already in use, like the prototype "Bear" that is sent out to rescue injured soldiers, are remote-controlled, identifying potential opportunities for our best Playstation kids and X-boxers.
Ref: The EU Observer (Belgium), 3 October 2006, 'Robots and media scrutiny to shape EU military future', H. Mahony, www, Red Herring (US), 23 October 2006, 'Robotics soldiers on',

Smell, touch, taste over the Net

The race is on in campuses across Japan to digitise all five senses - hearing, seeing, touch, smell and taste - for total perceptual communications over the Internet. Already surgeons can operate remotely by manipulating surgical instruments while viewing a video monitor - they can see what they are doing, but they can't feel anything. At Keio University, they are working on a unique pair of forceps that are controlled by the surgeon with a scissor-like device. Any resistance met by the actual forceps is detected and transmitted back to the device where it is recreated to give the surgeon tactile feedback. Keio University is also looking at ways of conveying tactile sensation by building on the concept of the video-call with a robot head that displays an image of a person, giving new meaning to the phrase, "Operator, please." At the Tsuji Academy, which operates a chain of cooking schools, they have adopted technologies from France Telecom to develop a device for transmitting smells via the Internet. The device stores artificial smells in liquid form in cartridges like printer ink. When a person views a cooking show, the appropriate fragrances are released on command. Likewise, at the Tokyo Institute of Technology they have developed a device the size of a laptop called the "olfactory display" that holds small vats of 32 different fragrances, releasing the appropriate odour on command. Even the digital communication of taste is considered possible at some point by converting the five basic tastes - salt, sweet, sour, bitter, savoury - into numerical values to be communicated digitally over the Net. It is hoped that at some point these various developments can be combined into a system that can send and receive data about all five senses and re-create these sensations in some far off land.
Ref: The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 13 November 2006, 'Sending Touch, smell over the Net',
S. Matsuda.
Search words: Internet, senses, small, taste, touch, authenticity, virtual