Monday, April 30, 2012

The #Turing Test and a thought experiment

I just came across a beautifully written piece in the New Yorker from last year called, Alan Turing's Apple. It does a lovely job of weaving Turing's experience in and out of contemporary times along with the Snow White fairy tale. At its heart its author, Amy Davidson, asks us to consider a thought experiment: if, in a Turing Test, a computer was asked if Turing's treatment that resulted in his death was fair, would a computer be as heartless as some people were in 1952?
    We tend to assume machines lack compassion and empathy, yet clearly some people do as well.




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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sebastian Thrun on #GoogleGlass & #GoogleCar

There's a very interesting interview from The Charlie Rose Show with Sebastian Thrun. He's the former director of SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), and was part of the team which won the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005 (a race involving driverless vehicles). Thrun now works for Google as the head of the Google X labs, and is responsible for the driverless Google cars and the Glass Project, which I blogged about recently.
   In this 20 minute interview he talks about the new Google glasses, which he's wearing, the motivation behind driverless cars, the future of education, and other projects he's currently working on.







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Saturday, April 28, 2012

#Turing's obituaries

Hollymeade in Wilmslow, the house where Turing died
Thanks to David Stutz for making some of the obituaries to Alan Turing available on his blog. His (and my) favourite is from Sherborne, Turing's school.


"For those who knew him here [at Sherborne] the memory is of an even-tempered, lovable character with an impish sense of humour and a modesty proof against all achievement. You would not take him for a Wrangler, the youngest Fellow of King's and the youngest F.R.S. [Fellow of the Royal Society], or as a Marathon runner, or that behind a negligé appearance he was intensely practical. Rather you recollected him as one who buttered his porridge, brewed scientific concoctions in his study, suspended a weighted string from the staircase wall and set it swinging before Chapel to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth by its change of direction by noon, produced proofs of the postulates of Euclid, or brought bottles of imprisoned flies to study their "decadence" by inbreeding. On holidays in Cornwall or Sark he was a lively companion even to the extent of mixed bathing at midnight. During the war he was engaged in breaking down enemy codes, and had under him a regiment of girls, supervised to his amusement by a dragon of a female. His work was hush-hush, not to be divulged even to his mother. For it he was awarded the O.B.E. He also adopted a young Jewish refugee and saw him through his education. Besides long distance running, his hobbies were gardening and chess; and occasionally realistic water-colour painting.
    In all his preoccupation with logic, mathematics, and science he never lost the common touch; in a short life he accomplished much, and to the roll of great names in the history of his particular studies added his own." — The Sherbornian, Summer Term 1954


This obituary from his old school does seem slightly at odds with their opinion of him whilst he was actually a student there. His recently published school reports paint a slightly different picture. For example, in mathematics one master comments, "Not very good.  He spends a good deal of time apparently in investigations in advanced mathematics to the neglect of his elementary work.  A sound ground work is essential in any subject.  His work is dirty." You can read his school reports on Alex Bellos' blog.




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Friday, April 27, 2012

Travelling Salesman - A Movie About P = NP

Honestly a movie is being about about the travelling salesman problem. The plot of the movie is based on what would happen if a computer scientist proved that NP = P. If this happened, all public key cryptography would be useless  as the NP problems they are based on could be converted into problems in P and solved in a "reasonable" time. The movie called Traveling Salesman premiers on June 16 and according to the makers "is an intellectual thriller about four of the world's smartest mathematicians hired by the U.S. government to solve the most elusive problem in computer science history -- P vs. NP. The four have jointly created a "system" which could be the next major advancement for humanity or the downfall of society. As the mathematicians are about to sign documents that will give the government sole and private ownership of their solution, they wrestle with the moral dilemma of how their landmark discovery will be used."
   You can find out more information on the movie's website, and you thought computer science was boring.




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How Alan #Turing invented the computer age

I'm very pleased to announce that Scientific American has published an essay I wrote titled, "How Alan Turing invented the computer age" in their Guest Blogs. The essay is 1,000 words long and gives a brief history of Turing's from his 1936 paper "On computable numbers..." through his WWII code breaking, to his post-war work on machine intelligence, his conviction and tragic suicide. It was quite a challenge to get all that into 1,000 words.
   Scientific American has an interesting range of blogs, which I recommend to you.




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Thursday, April 26, 2012

The first video phone call

An advert for the Bell Picturphone
According to the blog Skype Numerology Skype estimates it has approximately 124 million users, though it admits not all of these are active. I use Skype (and Apple's FaceTime) to talk with colleagues, students I'm supervising and of course to keep in touch with friends and family. You might be surprised to find out that the first public transcontinental video phone call was made in April 1964. Bell had placed their new Picturephones in booths at the New York World Fair and in Disneyland California. Members of the public in New York and California could see and speak to each and long lines rapidly grew at each location.
    A commercial service started in June 1964 from calling booths in three cities: New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago - but the service failed to excite.  Customers needed to schedule their calls in advance and it was very expensive. A 3-minute video call from New York to Washington cost $16, about $120 in today's money. Despite slashing prices the following year the service failed to take off and the plug was pulled in 1968. So next time you skype appreciate how convenient and cheap video calling has become.




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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

New science-fiction movie The Creator features Alan #Turing

The World Science Festival is showing the premier of a new movie by Al Holmes and Al Taylor (Al+Al) called The Creator, "a beautiful and surreal short-form film by award-winning British filmmakers Al+Al, which follows sentient computers from the future on a mystical odyssey to discover their creator: legendary computer scientist Alan Turing. Decades ago, Turing famously asked, 'Can machines think?' and ever since, the notion of computers exceeding human intelligence has transfixed researchers and popular culture alike. Marking the centenary of Turing's birth, The Creator will launch a wide-ranging conversation among leading computer scientists and physicists about the promise and perils of artificial intelligence, as we take a personal look at the remarkable and tragic life of this computer visionary."
  The World Science Festival 2012 runs from May 30 to June 3 in New York and the whole programme looks very interesting. Tickets for the premier of The Creator, which screens on Thursday, May 31, 2012 8:00 PM - 10:00 PM at The Museum of the Moving Image, cost from $15.






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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why cut computer science research?

Given the fact that employment in the IT sector has been steadily growing over the last decade, in part driven by innovations coming out of computer science research labs, it seems crazy for a University to axe computer science research. But, that is exactly what the Dean of Engineering at the University of Florida is planning to do. The Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department (CISE) will  become a teaching only department and lose its research activity.
   If we leave aside the argument that active researchers actually make better teachers, this plan still seems crazy at a time when companies, in the US in particular, value computer science research like never before. Perhaps the University of Florida should spend less on its football team, the Gators, and more on research that actually may benefit the economy!
- This story was brought to my attention by my colleague Mark Wilson.




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AI has been brain-dead since the 1970s

Well that's what Marvin Minsky said recently at Boston University according to an article in Wired. Minsky is in a good position to judge since he's considered one of the founding fathers of AI co-founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory back in 1959 with John McCarthy. Minsky, "accused researchers of giving up on the immense challenge of building a fully autonomous, thinking machine."
    Read the Wired article and come back for my take on it...


...I think Minsky has a valid point. There are two issues which have troubled me in recent years. The one is the rise in popularity of competitions within AI: RoboCup, trading agents, computer poker, etc...These are very popular with grad students, who like to win, but it may be questionable if there is a big benefit to AI as a whole. Take RoboCup, the robot soccer competition; several years ago RoboCup was co-located with IJCAI, the main bi-annual AI competition. More delegates were registered for RoboCup than were for IJCAI! That can't be right - it means more people were working in the narrow application of making robots kick a ball about than in the entire discipline of artificial intelligence. That's not balanced or healthy for the development of the subject.
    I've also noticed over the last decade and half, and it's true that this is largely because of AI's failure with expert systems in the 1980s, the rise of what I call the "smart algorithms approach." That is, given a problem AI researchers now typically attack it using machine learning methods and never attempt to use any explicit knowledge even when that knowledge may be easily available. This approach has been successful but eventually AI's will need to be able to use knowledge, codify it, pass it amongst themselves and be able to generalize knowledge from their experience. Consider an analogy, whom would you trust more, a doctor who said "take this drug it always seems to work," or a doctor who said "take this drug it always seems to work because it inhibits the protein receptors on the virus and interferes with its reproduction." The latter has explicit knowledge used to support an observation based on data. the former just has data.
   Minsky is right, AI has to get back to explicitly handling knowledge, both expert and common sense.




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