Artificial Intelligence, Avatars, and the Future

Most people first heard the word “avatar” from James Cameron’s Avatar, one of the top grossing films of all time. Some consider avatars an extension of the self that can save the world in the context of virtual reality or a video game. In Hinduism, avatars are considered incarnations of deities or immortals. The Hindu god Vishnu, for example, has many avatars, including the Buddha.

Helping to sort out the avatar conundrum and the fascinating field of artificial intelligence was a Brainwave series program at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC last Wednesday night. The program—“A.I. and Avatar: The New Explorers,”— began with a head-spinning question: “Can machines and other avatars expand the human experience—and perhaps even take our minds to the stars?”

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Moral Robots: How Close Are We?

world science festival robots
While we have grown accustomed to living and working in a world aided by “smart” devices, there is still a sense of suspicion when we talk about artificial intelligence (AI). Hollywood certainly hasn’t helped, with movies like “The Terminator” and “The Matrix,” but how close are we really to co-existing with autonomous, superintelligent robots?

The robots of today, at least, are not going to take over the world, said cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus one of the panelists at Saturday’s World Science Festival event, “The Moral Math of Robots: Can Life and Death Decisions be Coded?” To assuage any fears right off the bat, he encouraged audience members to watch a bloopers video from a recent DARPA Robotics Challenge. The Terminator, they are not. In fact, their fumbles are kind of endearing.
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The Psychology of Computers

“My computer is moody today.” “My computer doesn’t like me.” “My computer is going bonkers.” Sound familiar?

We often project human emotion onto computers. We do this with a variety of inanimate objects, but with computers it has added significance.

In a September 2009 Q&A with DABI member Terrence J. Sejnowski, Ph.D., we were introduced to Rubi, a robot that has the ability to socially interact with preschoolers. Two years later we reported on Rubi’s first day of school. Rubi was designed to “cry” if one of the children got too rough, an example of the increasingly blurred lines between human and robot.

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I’ll take artificial intelligence for $800, Alex

Tonight, the final episode of man-versus-machine Jeopardy! will air, pitting Watson, the IBM supercomputer, against Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter one last time.

During the first episode, Alex Trebek (who really does look better with a moustache) explained the genesis of Watson: “A little over three years ago, the folks at IBM came to us with a proposal that they considered to be the next grand challenge in computing. And that was designing a computer system that could understand the complexities of human language well enough to compete against Jeopardy!’s best players.”

So far, Watson’s Jeopardy! record remains impressive. But can artificial intelligence compete with humans in a more meaningful context? And if so, will human-cylon wars commence?

As Dartmouth professor Richard Granger explains in January’s Cerebrum article, computational neuroscientists and others working to create artificial intelligence systems that exceed human brain capabilities have miles to go.

“Brains, alone among organs, produce thought, learning, recognition,” writes Granger. “No amount of engineering has yet equaled, let alone surpassed, brains’ abilities at these tasks. Despite huge efforts and large budgets, we have no artificial systems that rival humans at recognizing faces, nor understanding natural languages, nor learning from experience.”

IBM scientists appear to have made headway in getting a machine to recognize natural language—at least language as presented by Jeopardy! But can Watson have a conversation, perceive emotions, or distinguish a U.S. city from a Canadian one?

Here’s what Granger has to say:

“Even our simplest perceptions often rely on top-down processing: using stored memory representations to inform our ongoing perception and recognition. In some circumstances, we can recognize objects in just tens of milliseconds, so rapidly that it is unlikely that any top-down pathways are yet engaged. Yet once we’re beyond simple recognition, to the far richer range of inference, association, and even language, memories strongly influence our perceptions. Merely thinking of a car is sufficient to activate the same early visual areas that would have been triggered by actually seeing the car, including its shape, size, color, and other features.

Watson may be able to understand and compute answers to questions, but it certainly cannot derive meaning from those answers. For that, we have to look to people like Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, and Alex Trebek. At least until the development of Watson 2.0.

For more on the development of Watson, watch this NOVA special.

–Johanna Goldberg

Music and the mind

“I don’t like a lot of music very much.” I was surprised to hear such a statement from a speaker during a discussion called “Making Music in the Dome,” but cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky did also say he appreciated most forms of “classical” music.

The discussion, part of the World Science Festival,
took place last Thursday at the Hayden Planetarium Space Theater in the
American Museum of Natural History in New York. It featured music,
video, and a discussion between two forward-thinking minds: Minsky and
Tod Machover.

Minsky, 82, co-founded the artificial
intelligence lab at MIT and continues to write books and present new
theories. Machover, also at MIT, is an innovative composer who fuses
music with new technologies. He gave hope to millions of untalented
musicians when he helped create the game “Guitar Hero.”

Machover
and Minsky discussed the future of music and technology, including the
idea of musical medicine—creating music that could produce desired
effects on a single person, as opposed to creating music for large
groups of people.

They have collaborated on the “Brain Opera,”
an interactive project on display in Vienna, and showed still images
and video from it on the planetarium’s ceiling. Machover talked about
how we may one day be able to “download our brains,” a concept he
explores in his upcoming opera, “Death and the Powers.”
We saw clips from this blend of music, technology, and the mind
(musical robots!) on the high ceiling, as well. “Mind immortality” is
certainly an interesting, though mind-bending, concept.

For someone who dislikes most forms of music, Minsky sure does spend a lot of time thinking about and helping to create it.

    –Andrew Kahn

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