Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The creation of Adam

I am absolutely fascinated by the idea of artificial intelligence.

Now, let me be up front that I don't know the first thing about the technical side of it.  I am so low on the technological knowledge scale that I am barely capable of operating a cellphone.  A former principal I worked for used to call me "The Dinosaur," and said (correctly) that I would have been perfectly comfortable teaching in an 18th century lecture hall.

Be that as it may, I find it astonishing how close we're getting to an artificial brain that even the doubters will have no choice but to call "intelligent."  For example, meet Adam Z1, who is the subject of a crowdsourced fund-raising campaign on IndieGoGo:

Make sure you watch the video on the site -- a discussion between Adam and his creators.

Adam is the brainchild of roboticist David Hanson.  And now, Hanson wants to get some funding to work with some of the world's experts in AI -- Ben Goertzel, Mark Tilden, and Gino Yu -- to design a brain that will be "as smart as a three-year-old human."

The sales pitch, which is written as if it were coming from Adam himself, outlines what Hanson and his colleagues are trying to do:

Some of my robot brothers and sisters are already pretty good at what they do -- building stuff in factories and vacuuming the floor and flying planes and so forth.

But as my AI guru friends keep telling me, these bots are all missing one thing: COMMON SENSE.

They're what my buddy Ben Goertzel would call "narrow AI" systems -- they're good at doing one particular kind of thing, but they don't really understand the world, they don't know what they're doing and why.
After getting what is referred to as a "toddler brain," here are a few things that Adam might be able to do:
  • PLAY WITH TOYS!!! ... I'm really looking forward to this.  I want to build stuff with blocks -- build towers with blocks and knock them down, build walls to keep you out ... all the good stuff!
  • DRAW PICTURES ON MY IPAD ... That's right, they're going to buy me an iPad.  Pretty cool, huh?   And they'll teach me to draw pictures on it -- pictures out of my mind, and pictures of what I'm seeing and doing.  Before long I'll be a better artist than David!
  • TALK TO HUMANS ABOUT WHAT I'M DOING  ...  Yeah, you may have guessed already, but I've gotten some help with my human friends in writing this crowdfunding pitch.   But once I've got my new OpenCog-powered brain, I'll be able to tell you about what I'm doing all on my own....  They tell me this is called "experientially grounded language understanding and generation."  I hope I'll understand what that means one day.
  • RESPOND TO HUMAN EMOTIONS WITH MY OWN EMOTIONAL EXPRESSIONS  ...  You're gonna love this one!  I have one heck of a cute little face already, and it can show a load of different expressions.  My new brain will let me understand what emotion one of you meat creatures is showing on your face, and feel a bit of what you're feeling, and show my own feeling right back atcha.   This is most of the reason why my daddy David Hanson gave me such a cute face in the first place.  I may not be very smart yet, but it's obvious even to me that a robot that could THINK but not FEEL wouldn't be a very good thing.  I want to understand EVERYTHING -- including all you wonderful people....
  • MAKE PLANS AND FOLLOW THEM ... AND CHANGE THEM WHEN I NEED TO....   Right now I have to admit I'm a pretty laid back little robot.  I spend most of my time just sitting around waiting for something cool to happen -- like for someone to give me a better brain so I can figure out something else to do!  But once I've got my new brain, I've got big plans, I'll tell you!  And they tell me OpenCog has some pretty good planning and reasoning software, that I'll be able to use to plan out what I do.   I'll start small, sure -- planning stuff to build, and what to say to people, and so forth.  But once I get some practice, the sky's the limit! 
  • Now, let me say first that I think that this is all very cool, and if you can afford to, you should consider contributing to their campaign.  But I have to add, in the interest of honesty, that mostly what I felt when I watched the video on their site is... creeped out.  Adam Z1, for all of his child-like attributes, falls for me squarely into the Uncanny Valley.  Quite honestly, while watching Adam, I wasn't reminded so much of any friendly toddlers I've known as I was of a certain... movie character:

    I kept expecting Adam to say, "I would like to have friends very much... so that I can KILL THEM.  And then TAKE OVER THE WORLD."

    But leaving aside my gut reaction for a moment, this does bring up the question of what Artificial Intelligence really is.  The topic has been debated at length, and most people seem to fall into one of two camps:
    1) If it responds intelligently -- learns, reacts flexibly, processes new information correctly, and participates in higher-order behavior (problem solving, creativity, play) -- then it is de facto intelligent.  It doesn't matter whether that intelligence is seated in a biological, organic machine such as a brain, or in a mechanical device such as a computer.  This is the approach taken by people who buy the idea of the Turing Test, named after computer pioneer Alan Turing, which basically says that if a prospective artificial intelligence can fool a panel of sufficiently intelligent humans, then it's intelligent.

    2) Any mechanical, computer-based system will never be intelligent, because at its basis it is a deterministic system that is limited by the underpinning of what the machine can do.  Humans, these folks say, have "something more" that will never be emulated by a computer -- a sense of self that the spiritually-minded amongst us might call a "soul."  Proponents of this take on Artificial Intelligence tend to like American philosopher John Searle, who compared computers to someone in a locked room mechanistically translating passages in English into Chinese, using an English-to-Chinese dictionary.  The output might look intelligent, it might even fool you, but the person in the room has no true understanding of what he is doing.  He is simply converting one string of characters into another using a set of fixed rules.
    Predictably, I'm in Turing's camp all the way, largely because I don't think it's ever been demonstrated that our brains are anything more than very sophisticated string-converters.  If you could convince me that humans themselves have that "something more," I might be willing to admit that Searle et al. have a point.  But for right now, I am very much of the opinion that Artificial Intelligence, of a level that would pass the Turing test, is only a matter of time.

    So best of luck to David Hanson and his team.  And also best of luck to Adam in his quest to become... a real boy.  Even if what he's currently doing is nothing more than responding in a pre-programmed way, it will be interesting to see what will happen when the best brains in robotics take a crack at giving him an upgrade.

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