THE REALITY CLUB



From: Clifford Pickover
Date: July , 2000

Hans Moravec stops his speculations at the "fourth, humanlike, generation of robots." However, most interesting to me is the fifth generation that surpasses humans in every conceivable (and inconceivable) endeavor including art, philosophy, and science. What new realms of thought and reality will these robots, "the Transcendent," explore? Many of them will probably escape into virtual realities superior in many respects to ordinary reality. By this time, humans will have become obsolete, ancient ants trapped in amber, compared to the Transcendent. Eventually these robots will have little need for bodies and will comprise software entities alone. They may love, explore, and create, much as we do, but they will also ask questions about the universe that we can not possibly ask limited by our three pounds of wet brain. Some of the Transcendent will choose to interact with physical reality to find ways to ward off the eventual destruction of the Earth and the fading of the universe as it expands. Others will submerge into artificial worlds separated from us by the filmiest of veils. Will their virtual realms be shared? Or will each of the Transcendent create a private pocket universe sheltered from others but containing other intelligences of their own design? I don't know the answer, but whatever the Transcendent become, they will live immensely long lives. I wish I could become one of the Transcendent rather than turn to dust with my organic friends.


From: Andy Clark
Date: July 23, 2000

Robots Yes, But Cyborgs Too.

Whilst applauding much of Professor Moravec's vision, I want to question the blunt assertion that robotics will eclipse the information industry, and the attendant image of that industry as simply about the automation of marginal tasks.

The true value of paperwork, text and symbols, it seems to me, lay in the way they actively transformed certain kinds of (otherwise daunting) tasks into ones that brains like ours could easily cope with. Think of the way pen and paper enabled us to store, share, and re-inspect our own thoughts and arguments. Think of the way learning symbols for complex relations (even number, odd number etc.) enabled us to discover even more complex relations (prime number and so on) — a process quite analogous to the way that the creation of stocks and shares opened up the spaces for trading in futures, then options on futures, and so on. The cascades of thought and transformations of problems made possible by external symbols and paperwork are not, I think, just the icing on the contemporary cognitive cake. They are the source of much of it's distinctive character and power. A biological brain, equipped with pen and paper, can think thoughts, and make discoveries, that the unaugmented human brain would never be able to construct.

The major value of the so-called information industry, I thus suggest, likewise lies not in it's capacity to automate what we can pretty much already do, but in it's own potential to once again profoundly transform the spaces of human reason, by making available new tools to structure and refine our thinking. I have in mind for example the use of games like SimCity City which teach young minds to think better about complex, decentralized systems, or the use of various kinds of computer-aided design and drafting techniques, or the provision of more and more faintly intelligent and inter-communicating devices to aid our work and leisure, or the use of personalized, continuously running software agents to search the web for items of interests, and so on and so on. Thus where Professor Moravec sees only a future in which robots become increasingly intelligent, I foresee one in which we, too, become more intelligent courtesy of various kinds of complex coupling between human brains and the technological prostheses we create: prostheses which in turn create us.

The information industry, I suggest, is not simply about the automation of dumb and marginal tasks. It is about the creation of new ways to literally upgrade human mindware, it is about the planting of new seeds for future kinds of human-machine symbiosis. Our brains, more than those of any other creature on the planet, are plastic and labile, ever-ready to dovetail some of their modes of operation to the particular transformations, tricks and resources made available by the technologies that silently surround them and inform their growth.

Robots yes. But Cyborgs too. And the Cyborgs are us.

 


From: Ben Goertzel
Date: July 23, 2000

Web Robots not Physical Robots are the Key to AI

Moravec gives a generally sound analysis of the challenges of AI and the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to overcoming them. But he stumbles, in my view, on one crucial point — his emphasis on robotics as the magic solution to AI. This focus on the physical world may have seemed obvious in the 70s, but here in the 21st century, as communication networks expand and the era of virtual reality dawns, it's a severely limited perspective.

It's absolutely correct that true intelligence requires embodiment. Physical-world robotics provides a familiar approach to embodied intelligence. But embodying an AI mind in an Internet agent sidesteps a lot of nasty mechanical and electrical engineering issues, and allows one to focus on mind design and mind engineering.

I believe that the magic solution to AI, insofar as there is one, is not robotics but — the Net. Web robots and more sophisticated Internet agents, not physical robots, are the ideal bodies for the first generation of real AI systems.

Of course, embodying AI in Internet agents doesn't solve all the hard problems of AI. It only solves two of them: where to find a big enough brain for an AI system, and how to embody an AI system within a world that it can fluidly perceive and manipulate. This still leaves the problem of how to actually structure a digital mind — how to build the software (or specialized hardware). In this respect, all the Net offers is a metaphor: the mind as a self-organizing network.

The "Internet as AI brain" is a fairly simple point, but Moravec chooses not to emphasize it. He points out, correctly, that simulating the detailed functioning of the human brain on contemporary computer hardware is very difficult, requiring a scale of processing power equal to millions of PC's. But he doesn't note that, through distributed processing across the Internet, it's possible to actually harness the power of millions of PC's, right now. Distributed.net and [email protected] started using the latent computing power of the Net, various start-up firms are now following in their footsteps — and this is only the beginning.

The "mind as network" metaphor is a powerful one. Mind is a massively parallel self-organizing system of interacting, intertransforming actors, many of them specialized to particular domains or particular processes. It demands a complex-systems-theoretic analysis. If a sufficiently deep and careful analysis of mental processes is carried out, in this vein, one discovers that the division between reasoning-based AI and neural-net based AI is largely bogus; reasoning emerges in a clear and detailed way as a statistical emergent from neural net dynamics. The network approach cuts through the apparently unresolvable knots set up by traditional AI theorists.

Moravec suspects that "devising such programs requires lifetimes of work by world-class geniuses." My claim, on the other hand, is that these lifetimes of work have already been done by very clever computer scientists working outside the accepted mainstream of AI. The task he describes will indeed require hundreds of PC's, but not millions — though it will be able to enhance its intelligence by dispatching hundreds of small learning problems to millions of distributed PC's operating in a peer-to-peer network.

In my view, the task he describes can be accomplished using existing ideas from systems theory, complexity science, and out-of-the mainstream AI. And to implement such a system will require a core "mind network" of hundreds of PC's, not millions — though this core mind network may enhance its intelligence by dispatching hundreds of small learning problems to millions of distributed PC's operating in a peer-to peer network.

In short, Moravec foresees a path to AI that begins with simple robots like robotic lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners, and progresses eventually to human-level intelligence. I say: Sure, this can work, but it's an unnecessarily long and difficult path. There is another, shorter one, which is going to be followed first. The incremental development of intelligent robots which Moravec describes will take place in the context of an increasingly intelligent population of Internet minds.


From: Pamela McCorduck
Date: July 24, 2000

A minor (or not so minor) quibble. Hans Moravec offers "humanlike performance" as the acme of intelligent behavior. Maybe it's the best model of general-intelligence behavior we have now, but its flaws are serious, possibly catastrophic. Moreover, he doesn't distinguish between collective human intelligent performance (a cumulative culture, a team of engineers) and an individual's performance. If he means individual human performance, we should ask whose? The average member of congress? The average theoretical physicist? The average dry cleaner?

What I'm sorry to see left out here is a point of view that says insisting on "humanlike performance" from our artificial intelligences is a bit like Columbus insisting that he reached "the Indies." He didn't. The place he did reach (the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs notwithstanding) was at least as interesting as the Indies, and changed history. Artificial intelligence is growing as interesting as human intelligence, and has already begun to change history.


From: John McCarthy
Date: July 31, 2000

Here's a response to "Ripples and Puddles" by Hans Moravec.

1. The long "just so story" about how human intelligence, especially visual intelligence evolved seems doubtful to me, although I'm not ready to propose an alternative. One bit that gets me is

Clerking is hard work more because of the preponderance of human mentation it must suppress than the tiny bit it uses effectively.

2. Moravec has always maintained that enormous processing power is the key to human ability to perform visual task. His argument is based on the very large amount of information reaching the human retina. It occurs to me this contention is subject to experimental test, and maybe it has already been tested.

The test: Let a human perform a complex task, e.g. skinning a cat, using only a black and white TV with (say) a 50 by 50 array of pixels and a frame rate of 10 per second. This system transmits to the human at an enormously lower information rate than what the real world transmits to the eye and which Moravec assumes necessary to perform the task. If people can successfully skin cats, recognize the faces of their friends, and guide robots over through forests and across streams using such minimal visual inputs, then we can conclude that Moravec's argument that enormous processing power is required is mistaken. He could still argue that the successful cat skinner expands the bad TV image and applies enormous processing power to the expanded image, but that would be a different argument than the one he has given - a much less plausible argument.

In an important sense, the test has already been performed many times though not systematically to determine just how small a data rate is adequate. Rather the human is given all the data rate the system allows, but often it is quite small. For example, I remember a NASA Ames Research Center demo in which anyone, including school children, could control a robot vehicle on the floor of the Antarctic. The data rate for that was surely many orders of magnitude less than Moravec postulates.

A systematic test of how low a TV data rate human require to perform visual-manipulative tasks would be informative.


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