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Nothing artificial about it

india Updated: Apr 02, 2012 22:50 IST

'I propose to consider the question "Can machines think?"' Not my question but the opening of Alan Turing's seminal 1950 paper which is generally regarded as the catalyst for the modern quest to create artificial intelligence (AI). His question was inspired by a book he had been given at the age of 10: Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know by Edwin Tenney Brewster. The book was packed with nuggets that fired the young Turing's imagination.

If the body were a machine, Turing wondered, is it possible to artificially create such a contraption that could think like he did? This year is Turing's centenary so would he be impressed or disappointed at the state of AI? Do the extraordinary machines we've built since Turing's paper get close to human intelligence? Or is the search to recreate 'us' a red herring?

Last year saw one of the major landmarks on the way to creating artificial intelligence. Scientists at IBM programmed a computer called Watson to compete against the best the human race has to offer in an American game show: Jeopardy! Answering questions such as: 'William Wilkinson's An account of the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia inspired this author's most famous novel' requires a sophisticated piece of programming that can return the answer quickly enough to beat your rival to the buzzer. This was in fact the final question in the face-off with the two all-time champions of the game show. With the answer 'Who is Bram Stoker?' Watson won Jeopardy! The programme at the heart of Watson's operating system learns from its mistakes. This idea is creating machines that are doing things that the programmers hadn't planned for.

Despite Watson's win, it made some telling mistakes. In the category 'US cities' contestants were asked: 'Its largest airport is named for a World War 2 hero; its second largest for a World War 2 battle." The humans responded correctly with 'Where is Chicago?' Watson went for Toronto.

It's this strange answer that gives away that it is a probably a machine rather than a person answering the question. Getting a machine to pass itself off as human was one of the key hurdles that Turing believed a machine would need to pass in order to successfully claim the realisation of AI. The AI community is beginning to question whether we should be so obsessed with recreating human intelligence. The emphasis is now shifting towards creating intelligence that is unique to the machine, intelligence that ultimately can be harnessed to amplify our very own unique intelligence.

For me, a test of whether intelligence is beginning to emerge is when you seem to be getting more out than you put in. Exciting new research is currently exploring how creative machines can be in music and art. It is this element of getting more out than you put in that represents something approaching emerging intelligence.

For me one of the most striking experiments in AI is the brainchild of the director of the Sony lab in Paris, Luc Steels. He has created machines that can evolve their own language. A population of 20 robots are first placed one by one in front of a mirror and they begin to explore the shapes they can make using their bodies in the mirror. Each time they make a shape they create a new word to denote the shape. When these robots interact with each other, one robot chooses a word from its lexicon and asks another robot to perform the action corresponding to that word. The other robot chooses one of its positions as a guess. If they've guessed correctly the first robot confirms this and if not shows the second robot the intended position. The second robot might have given the action its own name, so it won't yet abandon its choice, but it will update its dictionary to include the first robot's word. As the interactions progress the robots weight their words according to how successful their communication has been, downgrading those words where the interaction failed.

After a week of the robot group interacting with each other a common language tends to emerge. By continually updating and learning, the robots have evolved their own language. It is a language that turns out to be sophisticated enough to include words that represent the concept of 'left' and 'right'. The really striking fact for me is that these robots have a new language that they understand yet the researchers at the end of the week do not comprehend.

Turing might be disappointed that in his centenary year that there are no machines that can pass themselves off as humans but I think that he would be more excited by the new direction AI has taken. The AI community is no longer obsessed with reproducing human intelligence, the product of millions of years of evolution, but rather in evolving something new and potentially much more exciting.

The Guardian