Magazine article AI Magazine

Learning from Artificial Intelligence's Previous Awakenings: The History of Expert Systems

Magazine article AI Magazine

Learning from Artificial Intelligence's Previous Awakenings: The History of Expert Systems

Article excerpt

Much of the contemporary moment's enthusiasms for and commercial interests in artificial intelligence, specificially machine learning, are prefigured in the experience of the artificial intelligence community concerned with expert systems in the 1970s and 1980s. This essay is based on an invited panel on the history of expert systems at the AAA1-17 conference, featuring Ed Feigenbaum, Bruce Buchanan, Randall Davis, and Eric Horvitz. It argues that artifical intelligence communities today have much to learn from the way that earlier communities grappled with the issues of intelligibility and instrumentality in the study of intelligence.


If it is indeed true that we cannot fully understand our present without knowledge of our past, there is perhaps be no better time than the present to attend to the history of artificial intelligence. Late 2017 saw Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, Inc., opine that "AI is one of the most important things that humanity is working on. It's more profound than, I don't know, electricity or fire" (Schleifer 2018). Pichai's notable enthusiasm for, and optimism about, the power of multilayer neural networks coupled to large data stores is widely shared in technical communities and well beyond. Indeed, the general zeal for such artificial intelligence systems of the past decade across the academy, business, government, and the popular imagination was reflected in a recent New York Times Magazine article, "The Great AI Awakening" (Lewis-Kraus 2016). Imaginings of our near-future promoted by the World Economic Forum under the banner of a Fourth Industrial Revolution place this "machine learning" at the center of profound changes in economic activity and social life, indeed in the very meaning of what it means to be human (Schwab 2016).

Far too often, these pronouncements and perspectives fail to attend to artificial intelligence's previous awakenings. Over 30 years ago, in 1985, Allen Newell --one of the key figures in the emergence of artificial intelligence as a field in the 1950s and the first president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI)--wrote: "There is no doubt as far as I am concerned that the development of expert systems is the major advance in the field during the last decade ... The emergence of expert systems has transformed the enterprise of AI" (Bobrow and Hayes 1985). This article frames and presents the discussion at an invited panel, "AI History: Expert Systems," held at the AAAI-17 conference in San Francisco, February 6. The panel's purpose was to open up this history of expert systems, its transformational aspects, and its connections to today's "AI awakening" (Brock 2017). (1)

The history panel featured four key figures in the story of expert systems and was moderated by the director of the Center for Software History at the Computer History Museum, David C. Brock. Edward Feigenbaum is the Kumagai Professor Emeritus at Stanford University. He was president of AAAI in 1980-81, and he was awarded the ACM Turing Award for 1994 in part for his role in the emergence of expert systems. Bruce Buchanan is a university professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, and he was president of AAAI in 1999-2001. Randall Davis is a professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was president of AAAI in 1995-97. Eric Horvitz, MD, PhD, is a technical fellow of the Microsoft Corporation, where he also serves as the managing director of Microsoft Research. He was president of AAAI in 2007-09.

Perspectives from two historians of science and technology provide a very useful framework for approaching the history of expert systems, and the aiscussion at the 2017 history panel. Michael Mahoney, a history professor at Princeton University, was a particularly influential figure in the study of the history of computing. In a 2005 article, "The Histories of Computing(s)," Mahoney presented a concise statement of several of his most fundamental insights from his many years of study in the field. …

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