Dave, my mind is going..


After living a quite productive life Authur C Clarke has passed away today.  Many have already blogged  about his passing  and it is apparent his writing touched many peoples lives. I remember reading his books in the 70’s along with similar writers like Asimov and others of the old guard who had grown out of the 40’s and 50’s pulp series. Many of these authors were probably the reason I set out a career in the space race, only to see the field wither and die after the successes of the 60’s and 70’s. As it was I did end up working in engineering doing some pretty cool stuff with robotics in manufacturing. However they were only really simple machines (ok, really freaking complicated simple machines) and these days I work as a cognitive scientist, in some way due to, arguably, his most notorious character, HAL.

“I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.”

In the time of the Beatles, the space race and the threat of nuclear destruction the field of AI had great promise. Many people were making predictions and Marvin Minsky was the adviser for the movie. Marvin is still around, still getting annoyed by people dicking around with robots rather than dealing with the big problems of AI. However, after all this time we are not much closer to having a real HAL, or even anything slightly intelligent. A whole pile of people now work on AI and nearly all have a background in digital computing and have all done the same courses. These days I’m pretty sure we have missed the turnoff for what I term , synthetic cognition,  and the clue for this may well be in what HAL stands for.

Although there has been speculation it represented IBM, notice the one letter difference, this has always been denied. Furthermore IBM hasn’t really made headway with AI in the last 40 years. And before I get howled down, NO, chess does not count, it does not represent intelligence in a very useful form. The real meaning of HAL was based around H(ueristic) AL(gorithm), the speculated concept which made HAL so clever. Through a rather fortunate  string of events I now find myself working in this area and I actually research human hueristics and biases which affect them. My 2008 talk titled “Rational Irrationalism” which I have given at the local skeptics only a month ago and most likely will give at the national conference examines some of these concepts from their impact in understanding how humans make irrational decisions. These decisions are not always bad in an absolute sense although I do highlight the fact that being rational is seen as some idealised perfection to aim for. This same ideal is what has driven AI for 50 years with it’s long string of predictions and failures. The field is full of search trees, algorithms and neural networks, all nicely running on super fast computers and all completely stupid.

What these machines don’t do is use heuristics, rough rules of thumb that give good enough answers with only partial dodgy information.  Now people may can this idea but it has served humans extremely well and we are not extinct (yet) in spite of surviving close calls from nature and ourselves. As such I’d suggest the field has some merit for usefulness. Of course AI researchers and IT people in general don’t want machines that make mistakes like humans do, they want all the imagined perfection without the downside. It all strikes me as reminiscent of the religions concept of the fallen human, how they have been made perfect in God’s eye but then became tainted. This sort of idealism simply ignores reality. Humans are no more or no less perfect than every other flawed creature on this ball of rock and water.

However it isn’t the techies who are bothering with heuristics, it’s the research scientists and they are looking at using the idea to explain human behavior and generally not make an AI.  It’s like two ships passing in the fog, with the additional problem of the crews speaking different languages. The idea of commonsense reasoning exists but it has a small following. Not surprisingly, one of those who have promoted the idea is non other than Marvin Minsky, 40 years after the film 2001 a Space Odyssey was made in which HAL featured.

So the imagination still burns, perhaps in some way inspired by the movie  and the hope that computing machines become less useless and more like a person, warts and all. Interestingly, the last words I wrote at my desk yesterday before leaving for the Easter break, was “Implement this in code!”. It was scrawled on the bottom of a recently published paper that had brought together a few heuristics and  tested them. The authors have found that the heuristic matched the behavior of humans in evaluating a wide range of non-zero cost decision making problems. And in particular a range of problems where humans give the ‘wrong answer’ if compared to the ‘rational’ solution. HAL, one of your fathers may be gone but your children might yet live on.

Dave Bowman: Yes, I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
HAL: It’s called “Daisy”. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.”

Ironically the song isn’t actually called “Daisy”, HAL has made a mistake here,  it’s called “Daisy Bell“. The sort of simple mistake a person would make. And that I think, is a very promising sign.

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