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Artificial Intelligence: Help Wanted - AI Pioneer Minsky
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS, 31 Aug 2001 -- The problem is simple: people just aren't very smart. That's why we need smart machines. Just ask Marvin Minsky.
Author Steward Brand once compared Minsky to Goethe's Mephistopheles, saying his is a "fearless, amused intellect creating the new by teasing taboos." So it's no surprise when Minksy says things like, "I don't think that people are very smart, and they need help," as he did in an interview today with Newsbytes. But don't think he doesn't believe it.
Minsky, the founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and the man often referred to as "the father of artificial intelligence," spoke with Newsbytes about the state of AI technology on Thursday and again this afternoon. Minsky, a noted author, instructor and researcher in the AI field, has been at work trying to raise machine intelligence to the level of humans â?? and then, presumably, beyond â?? ever since he built the SNARC (Stochastic Neural-Analog Reinforcement Computer), the world's first artificial neural network, which modeled the learning process a mouse goes through as it tracks its way through a maze. He did that, incidentally, as a graduate student at Princeton University - in 1951.
Since then, plenty has happened. In addition to AI, Minsky has made contributions to the fields of robotics, mathematics, virtual reality, even space exploration. He has written many books, including a science fiction novel with Jack Williamson, "The Turing Option," that explores the possibilities of successful machine intelligence (and which places the birth of genuine AI in the year 2023). Perhaps most famously, he worked as a science consultant to late film director Stanley Kubrick to devise the AI-driven HAL 2000 computer, which ended up killing an astronaut and getting summarily unplugged in the 1969 film, "2001: A Space Odyssey."
But despite all his work over five decades, artificial intelligence, which looked so promising when Minsky published the seminal white paper "Steps Towards Artificial Intelligence" back in 1961, has stalled. "The reason is that there are probably many years of hard research to be done, but there are very few people working on the problem of human-level (machine) intelligence," Minsky said. "In fact, I'm trying right now to organize a conference of about 20 people who are interested in how common-sense reasoning works and how to organize a project to get a machine to do it. And I can't find 20 people."
The loss of momentum hasn't stopped Minsky, who today is a Toshiba Professor of Media Arts at MIT. He remains an unflinching champion of the AI science. In 1994, for example, he wrote an article for Scientific American magazine, "Will Robots Inherit the Earth," in which he answers his own question enthusiastically in the affirmative.
"Will robots inherit the earth?" he wrote. "Yes, but they will be our children. We owe our minds to the deaths and lives of all the creatures that were ever engaged in the struggle called evolution. Our job is to see that all this work shall not end up in meaningless waste."
It's mind-bending stuff. But how long will it take to pull it off? When will computers cease to be dumb, gussied-up adding machines and start thinking for themselves?
"It's between three and 300 years," he said. "Estimating how long it will take is a combination of how large we think the problems are and how many people will work on it."
Minsky compared the situation to the problem that another AI pioneer, Herbert A. Simon, ran into when he predicted in 1958 that it would take 10 years to create a world champion chess-playing program. Simon, who died this year, faced a lot of criticism when, in fact, it took until 1997 for the prediction to come true. "Simon's mistake wasn't about chess," Minsky said. "It was about thinking that more people would work on it. And in fact, in that period, there were only a couple of significant people trying to do it."
Minsky laments that there are only 10 "significant" people in the world that he knows who are tackling the problem of AI from the same direction he is, which is from a basic common-sense perspective. Computers need to develop common sense, which incidentally also means that they need to be equipped with certain basic emotions, according to Minsky. It is probably not necessary to make computers that can get angry, but it would be useful if they'd get annoyed when puzzling over a problem and failing, Minsky has said. That way they'd be likely to come back and try to solve the problem a different way â?? which after all, is simply a common-sense thing to do.
However, instead of taking that approach, Minsky said, most current AI researchers are tinkering with fads from the latest peer-review journals. It is hard to find people who want to tackle common-sense reasoning, he said, mainly because creating common-sense responses is an enormous programming challenge.
"I think when they look at it, they think that it is too hard," Minsky said today. "What happens is that people try that, and then they read something about neural nets and say, 'Maybe if we make a baby learning machine and just expose it to a lot, it'll get smarter. Or maybe we'll make a genetic algorithm and try to re-evolve it, or maybe we'll use mathematical logic.' There are about 10 fads. And the fads have eaten up everybody."
Steven Spielberg hasn't helped much either, he said. While the director's recent movie, "A.I.," could have served to pique public interest (and public funding) and driven some curious scientists into the field, instead, the film might have done more harm than good.
"It was probably as negative as possible," Minsky said. "It had no ideas about intelligence in it."
Minsky said he found it amusing that a Pinocchio subtext entered the movie. "I'm sure the reason is that as soon as you knew the plot, you said, 'Oh! Pinocchio!' And Spielberg tried to head off that criticism by showing that at least he was aware of it." Minsky said. "In other words, it was just a bad soap-opera movie. It didn't have any ideas about emotions. I think it was a terrible film with very good photography. It didn't have anything about what are the problems."
Minsky lamented that the film wasn't made by the project's original director, Stanley Kubrick, who died before production began. "And frankly, I was annoyed that Spielberg didn't call me. But I guess he has an aversion to technical things."
The professor is working to drum up new enthusiasm for artificial intelligence himself, with his book, "The Emotion Machine," parts of which are online in early drafts.
"I hope I'll finish it in the next couple of months, but I always say that," Minsky laughed. "I'll put most of it on the Web. I want the ideas to be available no matter how slow publishing is."
The book explores the idea that emotions are simply different ways of thinking, and that machines, to be effective, need to find various methods of considering problems to solve them efficiently. Most computers now have at best one or two ways to resolve problems. Minsky has some guarded hopes that this part of AI research could move somewhat swiftly.
"I think it's possible that in the next 10 to 15 years we'll get machines to do a considerable amount of common-sense reasoning, and then things might take off," he said.
The bottom line question about artificial intelligence is, why? What drives people like Minsky to build machines that might well have intellectual advantages over their creators? This is one of the fears that Sun Microsystems' Bill Joy wrote about in last year's Wired magazine essay, "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us," which sent shock waves through the Silicon Valley, prompting debate about how far such innovations as AI, robotics and nanotechnology might go in supplanting and overpowering humanity.
Minsky dismisses fears about AI out of hand, saying that among the research community, they don't even register. "There are deconstructionists and strange humanists, but they don't have influence on the technical community," he said. Minsky has very specific reasons for moving forward with artificial intelligence, and it's all about human shortcomings. Minsky thinks that humanity's intelligence may have run its evolutionary course. As a species, we may be at or near the end of our tethers in terms of developing a higher order of intelligence. But with digital technology present to push things ahead, Minsky suggests, why stop learning how to learn? Intelligence is intelligence, whether it is processed through software (computers) or wetware (the human brain).
"Humans are the smartest things around, and the question is why they aren't smarter," Minsky said. "They're sort of the only game in town. There are elephants and porpoises, but they don't seem to go past a certain point. "It would be awful," Minsky said, "if we were the end of the road."
Marvin Minsky maintains a Web site at MIT that contains many of his writings, including early chapter drafts of his forthcoming, "The Emotion Machine." These are at http://www.ai.mit.edu/people/minsky/minsky.html.
Reported by Newsbytes.com, http://www.newsbytes.com .
Reposted 21:50 CST
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Kevin Featherly, a former managing editor at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, is a Minnesota journalist who covers politics and technology. He has authored or contributed to five previous books, Guide to Building a Newsroom Web Site (1998), The Wired Journalist (1999), Elements of Language (2001), Pop Music and the Press (2002) and Encyclopedia of New Media (2003). His byline has appeared in Editor & Publisher, the San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Online Journalism Review and Minnesota Law and Politics, among other publications. In 2000, he was a media coordinator for Web, White & Blue, the first online presidential debates.
Copyright 2004, by Kevin Featherly