Tuesday, May 29, 2012

April Science in the News: Our Friends, Our Foes, Our Machines

“What is the weather like?”

Any person you meet can likely answer this question without batting an eyelash. But what about a machine? Although seemingly simple, understanding and responding to such an inquiry requires a certain amount of intelligence. For instance, a refrigerator might not be the best thing to consult when deciding what to wear in the morning. But Emmett Sprecher began April’s Science in the News (SITN) presentation by asking his phone this very question. A few seconds later, Siri, the personality behind the iPhone 4 spit out New Haven’s weather forecast for the evening. How can your smartphone do what your refrigerator cannot? This was the topic discussed in the basement of the New Haven Public library: artificial intelligence (AI).

Siri, the iPhone’s AI voice recognition system can answer questions about the weather, compose texts for you, play music, and even search the Internet. 
Photo: Ankit Disa.

The three SITN presenters, Emmett, ThaiBinh Luong, and Christopher Bolen -- all recent or current graduates in Yale’s computational biology program -- used an array of futuristic and real-world examples of AI to discuss what AI actually is, how it works, and what the future of AI may hold. Here, I will try to break down their answers for you (spoiler alert: no, robots probably won’t take over the world… according to Christopher, at least).

The April SITN presenters answering questions following their talk at the New Haven Public Library. 
From left to right, Christopher Bolen, ThaiBinh Luong, and Emmett Sprecher. 
Photo: Ankit Disa

Before we can answer how AI operates or how it might affect us in the future, we must answer the first question, what is AI? In the true circular fashion of academia, many computer scientists define artificial intellgence as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines”.1Emmett clarified this definition by considering examples that we (whether or not we are aware of them) encounter on a regular basis.  Siri, our iPhone friend, is a recognizable example, perhaps, in part, due to its voice.  However, consider the computer opponent in video games, the Roomba (the robotic vacuum cleaner), and Watson (the robot that recently won a game of Jeopardy); these are all examples of machines that utilize artificial intelligence in some capacity.  As Emmett explained, they all have the ability to perceive their environments and take actions which they determine will lead to the best chance of success.  Success in this case is broadly defined; it could mean winning a video game or sucking up a crumb.  In contrast, non-intelligent machines, like assembly line robots, always take pre-conscribed actions and do not modify their behavior based on their interactions with their environment.

Algorithm vs. Al Gore rhythm.
An algorithm is a set of rules to follow -- for instance, a flow chart (left). Al Gore rhythm (right) is probably something our former vice president doesn't have much of (just a guess!).

So, how does AI work? As ThaiBinh explained, the basic concept is not as complicated as one might think. Often, as in many video game systems, for instance, the decision-making process follows algorithms (not to be confused with any Al Gore rhythms) that are coded into the AI computer. You can think of an algorithm as a recipe or a procedure that tells the machine to take action B when it encounters situation A. The success of such an AI, however, depends on the quality of these rules. Instead of fixed rules, however, one could build an AI to find patterns in the incoming data and make predictions about future outcomes. This is how Netflix is able to make suggestions about movies you may like -- it compares what movies other people like who have the same interests as you.

AI can help us clean our carpets or figure out the weather, but how far can it go? Google’s self-driving car, which uses Google Street View information and visual sensors to navigate, has already logged over 200,000 miles, and driverless car licenses have been approved by the State of Nevada. In the medical field, in addition to the growth of robot-assisted surgeries, IBM has agreed to use Watson to help doctors make medical diagnoses.

Truly, it seems AI is and will continue to revolutionize our everyday lives for the better. But we are often presented with futuristic possibilities in movies and sci-fi books of robots taking over the world and revolting against their creators (us). Don’t worry, Christopher assures, this scenario is very unlikely. Why? Because AI is, in the end, a set of rules programmed in by a person, so if robots were to take over the world… we’d have to tell it to!


Looks like we won't have to worry about a Terminator doomsday scenario ... unless we decide we want to!

- Ankit Disa
3rd year, Applied Physics PhD

1 comment:

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