Monday, November 6, 2006

Dumbo has become self-aware

As scientists ascribe more & more conscious traits to animals, when will machines receive similar considerations?

Bronx Zoo researchers recently announced they observed that elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror. Thanks to this evidence, we can now attribute a level of self-awareness formerly reserved for dolphins and primates (including humans). Other behaviors, including the use of tools, communication, social interaction and even apparently emotional responses lead experts to credit these animals with a relatively high order of consciousness.

But if machines were to exhibit the same behaviors, would people be willing to assign the same characteristics to? The likely answer is no. Consciousness and self-awareness are highly emotive topics that play a central role in the identity of the human race. The resistance to extend such labels to artificial intelligence is akin to the resistance to accept the implications of macroevolution with respect to the origin of our species. People often resort to a sort-of “mystery of the gaps” argument, claiming that since we can fully understand the internal processes of a “white box” artificial intelligence, it cannot possibly contain the same “stuff” as human minds. But as we increase our understanding of human consciousness, eliminating the gaps and turning the “black box” gray, the mystery disappears. This entire line of reasoning strikes me as being analogous to the argument which contends that we cannot possibly be descended from apes, because human beings possess a soul while chimpanzees do not.

Perhaps one day our society will accept that our own consciousness is merely the product of highly complex systems and processes of the physical mind, and therefore grant the same definitions and descriptions to artificial entities that mimic the same processes and behaviors.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Film Noir's portrayal of AI

How do the various Hollywood visions of the future compare with current AI research & applications?

The Financial Express (Bangladesh's only English-language financial daily) has an entertaining article about the treatment of Artificial Intelligence and other futuristic technologies by the motion picture industry. There seems to be a recurring theme that technological advancement is destined to doom the human race, as opposed to saving it. The writer points out films that showcase believable technology of the near future tend to be pessimitic, like The Terminator series and I, Robot, while more optimistic franchises like Star Trek employ distant and unrealistic technologies. So are these apocalyptic images really the fate of humanity, or is Hollywood just a little technophobic?


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Max Headroom Lives!

Coming soon to your TV: newscasts written, produced and anchored entirely by autonomous software.

Think Ananova without the writers. The system, called News at Seven, generates a script from RSS news feeds customized to a viewer’s interests which is then read by an avatar created using the Half-Life game engine. The system can also augment the broadcast with clips from YouTube or other video sites based on keywords in the news stories.

News at Seven was created by a team of researchers at the Northwestern University Intelligent Information Lab led by Kristian Hammond along with grad students Nathan Nichols and Sara Owsley. Several videos are already available for viewing, including a report on the alleged North Korean nuclear test.

A novelty for now, perhaps, but possibly the next step in the long journey towards building systems we interact with in a much more natural way. Imagine an avatar you could ask questions of or hold a conversation with. Using methods such as those described above, this avatar could instantly become an expert in almost any conceivable subject. Or, instead of re-formatting RSS feeds for a news script, the system could follow some sort of knowledge representation framework to build an information bank for later use. If we replace the RSS feeds with some other form of input, say sensory input, it could create “memories” of “personal experiences.” The question at the heart of the matter is: how do we define understanding? Does the News at Seven avatar understand the stories it presents to its audience? Most would agree that it does not. But what if the avatar was able to keep a record of the information from these stories in an accessible memory bank, and could discuss the matter with other people (or avatars) to formulate decisions, actions or even opinions based on that knowledge? Would that qualify as understanding? Or intentional behavior? Or even conscious thought? What do we humans, as conscious beings, do beyond this that leads us to define it all as consciousness and understanding?

via Slashdot

Monday, October 23, 2006

No More DARPA Prize $$$

Citing a defense spending bill signed by President Bush this month, DARPA will not award any prize money at this year’s Grand Challenge.

DARPA’s interpretation of the new law prohibits the agency from conferring the anticipated $2.7 million award. Instead, the top three teams will each receive a trophy purchased out-of-pocket by DARPA director Tony Tether. This development has raised concerns that some teams will be forced to drop out of the competition and will reduce media coverage of the event.

After last year’s race where Stanford triumphed by successfully navigating a 132-mile desert course, the third Grand Challenge to be held in November 2007 will test the unmanned vehicles’ ability to traverse congested city traffic, avoiding other cars and complying with the rules of the road. Dubbed “The DARPA Urban Challenge,” this race will simulate a military supply mission in an urban environment, pushing the vehicles’ autonomous control systems to their limit. As with the two previous Grand Challenge events, the overall goal is meeting the congressional mandate to make one-third of all military ground vehicles unmanned by 2015.

via News

Darwinian Survival Machines or Anatman? has a lengthy article exploring the soul’s role in human consciousness which has some interesting implications for machine consciousness as well.

The article spans a variety of subjects from psychology to philosophy, and the most interesting passage is in the midst of a discussion about the neurophysical processes behind consciousness and language with philosopher Daniel Dennett:

"This is what I've meant over the years when I've said that the brain is a syntactic engine mimicking a semantic engine." By that, Dennett presumably means that consciousness produces orderly, grammatical representations of something out there in the world that is meaningful, but it does not create meaning. It is not necessary to meaning.

This argument rejects the notion that a Turing machine is not actually conscious since it merely mimics the understanding of language by suggesting that this mechanical procedure is the only system at work within the human mind. By reducing the physical processes in the brain down to their fundamental components, we see that they are no more remarkable than the internal workings of a digital computer. Critics of AI argue that machines & algorithms cannot be conscious since we can observe precisely how they reproduce human behavior. Perhaps once human behavior itself is de-mystified to the point where our consciousness is understood completely, these people will be willing to apply the label of conscious thought more broadly.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Hands-Free Driving

We already know about cars that can drive themselves, park themselves, and maintain a safe following distance.

Now, a consortium including Volvo and DaimlerChrysler is working to develop a control system to better integrate all of the intelligent devices in the vehicle with the human driver. How soon until we're all cruisin' around like John Anderton and Del Spooner?


Mobile Email Back Up

On or about 19 Sept, Google made some changes to their Gmail service.

I had been using my Palm Treo 650 smartphone on the Sprint network to get my email on the go. These changes made the Versamail auto-sync stop working. I couldn't download new email manually either. I was still able to check my messages via webmail on the Blazer browser, but that was a pain in the butt.

I finally had a chance to research this issue, and came across a very helpful Google Groups topic. Basically, I had to disable POP completely, and then re-enable it for all new email. And voila...we're back in business!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Frustrating Recursion

I thought I made a mistake once, but I was wrong. For some reason, this happens to me all the time when programming.

I was working on AutoSummary this weekend, adding a contextual framework using hypernym (superordinate) information for individual senses of a given word. In order to do this I needed to create a b-tree data structure. I thought I had set everything up properly, except the tree wouldn't populate past the second level. Weird crashes, etc. I tried everything, checked all of the functions and methods, testing everything I could think of. Nothing.

Tonight, I started checking everything over again, trying some different approaches. I did some digging and determined something was generating a null pointer exception. I checked everything all over again, and again... nothing. After a period of insufferable aggrivation, I discovered by trial and error that the exception was caused by the fact that I had forgotten to initialize the data container (an ArrayList). I was so worried about getting all the "hard stuff" figured out that I had overlooked a beginner's error.

The moral of the story? The simplest answers are often the hardest to find.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Moving Forward

Last night I did some work on the Answer Machine, and today I'm working on adding topic detection to AutoSummary.

Check out the entry in the Answer Machine project log for details about its new functionality. As for AutoSummary, I came up with a good idea about how to implement topic detection within the current framework of the program. I was checking out this post at the Search Science blog that I read, and thought "I can do that."

What I plan on doing is after determining the likely sense of a given word, I'll build a list of all of the possible topics that word is connected to (using the WordNet domain function). From that I'll be able to find the topic of a sentence by taking the best intersection of all the anchor words (not "the" or "and" etc).

You can probably see how it will scale from there, building intersections of sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into entire texts. So very shortly I just might be able to take an fully body of text and determine just what the heck it is all about. Could be an interesting step forward in search relevance and data mining...

Saturday, January 21, 2006

U.S. Losing Edge on UAVs?

Recent developments suggest other nations might be catching up to the U.S. military in UAV technology.

Last week, reports surfaced that the Dept of Defense will terminate the J-UCAS program (parent of the X-45) as part of a Quadrennial Defense Review plan to modernize the USAF bomber fleet. While the Air Force and Navy will continue to develop their own independent unmanned aircraft programs, this move could be a death blow to a program showing enormous promise. The new bomber could incorporate some of the J-UCAS technology, and officials have not ruled out the possibility of building an unmanned bomber.

Meanwhile, the British just unveiled a stealth drone of their own. Dubbed the "Corax," the unmanned aircraft features a tailess, stealthly airframe and will be used as a platform to develop new command and control systems.

At the same time, the South Koreans have announced plans to develop sophisticated military robots, including "eight-legged autonomous combat vehicles."

So while other militaries forge ahead with unmanned weapons systems, the U.S. cuts its most advanced unclassified UAV program, even though the DOD recently said cancelling the program would erode its unmanned aircraft advantage. Fortunately, South Korea and the UK are friendly nations, but how long will it be until a rival demonstrates the willingness to challenge American air superiority with unmanned fighters of their own? That might be the only developlment likely to cause unmanned systems to replace fighter pilots in their air-to-air combat role.

Latest News: The Air Force Times is reporting that officials are planning a new career field for UAV operators, entirely distinct from traditional aircraft pilots. So instead of forcing traditional pilots to non-voluntarily retrain into UAV operators, this move aims to train pilots to specialize in unmanned systems from the get-go. Perhaps a new breed of leadership grown from the ranks of these UAV specialists will not retain the nostalgic attachment to the 'feel and experience' of traditional aviation, and will enable this technology to progress without prejudice.