Artificial Intelligence Is Getting Smarter HIGH-TECH ELECTRONICS

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A CENTRAL-heating boiler chatting with the dishwasher while the washing machine makes small talk with visitors?

A scientific revolution as profound as the invention of printing, or even the development of writing or numbers, promises to transform the domestic scene and force a reappraisal of our mental abilities, according to one of the world's leading researchers in artificial intelligence.

The idea that "intelligence" can truly be a property of anything other than a human being is deeply controversial. Philosophers battle over the uniqueness of the human mind and consciousness, but Prof. Donald Michie, who heads the Turing Institute in Glasgow, believes machines capable of language and learning will soon be developed that will challenge and extend human knowledge.

Professor Michie's early career brushed with that of Alan Turing, the founding father of artificial intelligence, who worked on Britain's code-cracking effort during World War II. Turing devised a test which lies at the root of the philosophical arguments. It said that if a computer program can perform in such a way that an expert cannot distinguish its performance from that of a human with a certain mental ability, the program can be said to have that ability.

The arguments have so far been more theoretical than real. Computers, although capable of impressive skills, are easily caught out by many aspects of human intelligence. Most present programs use deductive reasoning, working from the general to the particular. The snag is that all the rules have to be worked out first before giving them to the machine to interpret.

But Michie, formerly at Edinburgh University, where he established one of the leading artificial intelligence research groups, sees inductive reasoning, going from the particular to the general, as the key to machine intelligence. The idea is to give the machine examples and let it work out the underlying rules that govern what is going on. Only inductive systems have the ability to learn.

Michie carried his expertise to the Turing Institute, which he set up jointly with Jim Alty of the University of Strathclyde six years ago to bridge the gap between industry and academia in artificial-intelligence research. His group is among the pioneers developing such "expert" systems.

A harbinger of things to come, developed by several of the main computer companies, is an "agent a cartoon figure with whom one can converse and get help, advice, guidance, and information about what is going on in the operating system, soon to be available on computer screens. But Michie believes gradual improvement in the agents' skills is more likely to undermine than answer the philosophical issues.

"If eventually we really cannot tell the difference between the agent and a {human} colleague, we are going to have no more interest in arguing whether the program is really conscious than I am concerned with the question of whether my graduate students are really conscious," he says. …