The Search for Artificial Intelligence

By Bethell, Tom | The American Spectator, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

The Search for Artificial Intelligence


Bethell, Tom, The American Spectator


For 50 years the finest minds have been telling computers what to do. What they haven't been able to instill in them is common sense.

IN A SEMI-OFFICIAL WAY, the search for artificial intelligence began SO years ago. In the- summer of 1956, a two-month conference at Dartmouth College set out to explore "the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle he so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it."

Computers could do what the mind does, in other words.

An attempt would be made "to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves."

The four authors of the grant proposal added-optimistically it turned out: "We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer." The Rockefeller Foundation put up the money.

The conjecture that machines could be built with the ability to think had been made by the British mathematician Alan Turing in the 1930s. By the end of the 2OtIi century, he believed, "one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted." In 1950 he devised what became known as the Turing test. If a human behind a screen cannot distinguish human from machine responses, then the machine must be considered intelligent.

Fifty years after the Dartmouth conference, the computer science people are still working on these problems. Computers have not yet passed the Turing test. A "significant advance" has been made in solving some problems "now reserved for humans." But the advance belongs in the realm of what is called "applied" artificial intelligence. Computers can do useful things like multiplication and division, and they are also very good at chess. An IBM program beat the world chess champion. As to machines forming abstractions on their own, there has been no progress.

The principal organizer of the 1956 conference was an assistant professor of mathematics at Dartmouth, John McCarthy, who was still in his twenties. It is generally accepted that he was also the first to use the term artificial intcllit/cncc. which today goes by the acronym Al. Another leading participant and coauthor of the grant proposal was Marvin Minsky, who was a junior fellow in mathematics at Harvard. He is the same age as McCarthy-both are now 78.

The field of artificial intelligence has been largely created and colonized by matliematicians, and it's worth noting in passing that the world of mathematics is itself an ideal world. It corresponds to the real world most of the time, hut not all of the time.

Within a few years McCarthy had moved on to Stanford University and Minsky to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both institutions have remained dominant in the Al field, both men have remained actively involved, and both will speak at "AI (a) 50," agolden jubilee conference to be held at Dartmouth in mid-July. The conference director, Dartmouth philosophy professor James Moor, sounds more cautious than his predecessors 50 years ago, modest Iy saying that this summer's event will "undertake a full exploration into the many emerging directions for future AI research, just as the College took the first steps to establish AI as a research discipline 50 years ago."

Rodney Brooks, the Panasonic Professor of Robotics and Director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, added a more effusive comment. (Marvin Minsky is still on the MIT facultyhe is the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and a professor of electrical engineeringand computer science there-but Brooks now runs the AI Lab at MIT.) Brooks praised the 1956 conference, at which "an audacious, outrageous even, intellectual Zeitgeist emerged: that the core of humanity, our ability to think and reason, was subject to our own technological understanding,"

And, he added: "The participants were right. …

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