Artificial Intelligence igniting the spark of intelligence

February 6, 2002

Stephen Spielberg’s upcoming film Artificial Intelligence is set to renew a long-running, centuries old, debate about mechanical brains and whether they ever may become superior to the human mind. Robots are sure to be humanized the same way space aliens were made into huggable, home sick little people in his epic ET. “He is the first robotic child, programmed to love” runs the new film’s advertising promotion.

Life like robots are everywhere — not just Hollywood movies but in Sony toy dogs, cars that monitor and talk back to drivers, and mechanical eyes managing factory production.

Spielberg’s film Artificial Intelligence highlights an ongoing debate on whether computer intelligence will ultimately surpass the human mind.

The internet is full of science fiction musings on how machine intelligence might one day overcome the limits of the human mind.

Critics say that machines will never actually think in the human sense, only process bewildering amounts of data. Yet, the pace of advances has given naysayers some pause. Debate is stoked by the emergence of powerful tools such as artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and nanotechnology — computers that work at the molecular level. These present both dangers and the potential to transform the human condition.

Ray Kurzweil, an artificial intelligence pioneer, argues that computers are rapidly outstripping human intelligence. “We will reverse engineer the human brain not simply because it is our destiny — but because there is valuable information to be found there that will provide insights in building more intelligent machines,” he predicts in his book.

Machines can solve problems with billions, even trillions of variables that no mind could begin to contemplate. But do they think, will they ever possess emotions? Artificial intelligence has become embedded in everyday life. Telephone customer service calls are now often routed automatically using computer generated voices with lifelike personalities. Banks use neural network technology that mimics the human brain to automate decision making about loan applications.

So far, it’s been pretty dumb

Artificial intelligence run amok has a long history that stretches back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It includes science fiction in the spirit of author Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the film version of his book, the almost omniscient computer called HAL 9000 tells his fellow astronaut, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

The road to ever improving machine intelligence has been littered with mundane inventions, some of which work, even if humorously. Computer intelligence simulations have been in use since the 1960s when researchers built software to solve simple algebra problems. Another program called Eliza offered a comforting form of Rogerian humanistic therapy. Web readers can get free analysis at the Eliza website.

Stuart Wilkinson, PhD of the University of South Florida coined the term gastrobots for intelligent machines that derive their energy requirements from digestion of real food. Such a self-sustaining machine could endlessly mow the lawn along roadsides, eating its own clippings.

The specter that self-replicating creatures could be created out of nanotechnology, bioengineering and artificial intelligence to displace human beings,as led Bill Joy, a top software pioneer with Sun Microsystems, to call for self-imposed limits on scientific research recently.

Natasha Vita More, a multi-media artist, has spent 20 years working at the intersection of science and art to popularize ideas about artificial intelligence as a means of human liberation.

Her latest work, dubbed Primo 3M+ was developed with Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky, PhD called the father of artificial intelligence, and Ralph Merkle, PhD an expert in atomic scale nanotechnology.

Vita More’s digital art piece is online. The exhibit showcases dozens of possible human body enhancements. It is not a robot, but a machine enabled human being. “The reality is man and machine are merging,” said Vita More.

Vita More predicts the 21 century body will eventually offer the ability for the ageless upgrade of human cells, with skin impervious to damage from sun rays. More radically, it may come with batteries, changeable sexuality and computerized brain capable of storing, preserving and retrieving human memories.

Resistance is futile

The revolution underway has led to the creation of speech recognition software that costs $50, boasts a 100,000 word vocabulary, and has the ability to understand continuous human speech. 15 years ago a $5,000 package recognized just 1,000 words, and could often not be understood.

Kurzweil helped invent text and speech recognition, language translation, music synthesizers and the print-to-speech reading machine for the blind. Kurzweil authored the book The Age of Spiritual Machines.

“The whole history of computers is that as they become more complex, they become simpler to use. It doesn’t require human beings to become more complicated,” he said. To popularize his ideas, Kurzweil created the Cybernetic Poet, which composes poetry, seemingly at random. His latest creation is Ramona, a virtual singer who can string together connected thoughts in conversation.

Kurzweil maintains a comprehensive website with links to these projects and a range of readings for students of artificial intelligence. While the multiplication may be mind boggling, he sees progress within 50 years toward a computer that costs $1,000 with the power of 10 billion human brains. For Kurzweil, this is all merely a matter of time, 2030 he forecasts.