Intelligence, computers, and robots

Starting tonight, Feb. 14, 2011, you’ll be able to watch a computer compete against two former champions on the US television quiz programme, Jeopardy.  The match between the IBM computer, named Watson, and the most accomplished champions that have ever played on Jeopardy, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, has been four years in the making. From the article by Julie Beswald on,

“Let’s finish, ‘Chicks Dig Me’,” intones the somewhat monotone, but not unpleasant, voice of Watson, IBM’s new supercomputer built to compete on the game show Jeopardy!

The audience chuckles in response to the machine-like voice and its all-too-human assertion. But fellow contestant Ken Jennings gets the last laugh as he buzzes in and garners $1,000.

This exchange is part of a January 13 practice round for the world’s first man vs. machine game show. Scheduled to air February 14-16, the match pits Watson against the two best Jeopardy! players of all time. Jennings holds the record for the most consecutive games won, at 74. The other contestant, Brad Rutter, has winnings totaling over $3.2 million.

On Feb. 9, 2011, PBS’s NOVA science program broadcast a documentary about Watson whose name is derived from the company founder, Paul Watson, and not Sherlock Holmes’s companion and biographer, Dr. Watson. Titled the Smartest Machine on Earth, the show highlighted Watson’s learning process and some of the principles behind artificial intelligence. PBS’s website is featuring a live blogging event of tonight’s and the Feb. 15 and 16 matches. From the website,

On Monday [Feb. 14, 2011], our bloggers will be Nico Schlaefer and Hideki Shima, two Ph.D. students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute who worked on the Watson project.

At the same time that the ‘Watson’ event was being publicized last week, another news item on artificial intelligence and learning was making the rounds. From a Feb. 9, 2011 article by Mark Ward on BBC News ,

Robots could soon have an equivalent of the internet and Wikipedia.

European scientists have embarked on a project to let robots share and store what they discover about the world.

Called RoboEarth it will be a place that robots can upload data to when they master a task, and ask for help in carrying out new ones.

Researchers behind it hope it will allow robots to come into service more quickly, armed with a growing library of knowledge about their human masters. [emphasis mine]

You can read a first person account of the RoboEarth project on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering) Spectrum’s Automaton Robotics blog in a posting by Markus Waibel,

As part of the European project RoboEarth, I am currently one of about 30 people working towards building an Internet for robots: a worldwide, open-source platform that allows any robot with a network connection to generate, share, and reuse data. The project is set up to deliver a proof of concept to show two things:

* RoboEarth greatly speeds up robot learning and adaptation in complex tasks.

* Robots using RoboEarth can execute tasks that were not explicitly planned for at design time.

The vision behind RoboEarth is much larger: Allow robots to encode, exchange, and reuse knowledge to help each other accomplish complex tasks. This goes beyond merely allowing robots to communicate via the Internet, outsourcing computation to the cloud, or linked data.

But before you yell “Skynet!,” think again. While the most similar things science fiction writers have imagined may well be the artificial intelligences in Terminator, the Space Odyssey series, or the Ender saga, I think those analogies are flawed. [emphasis mine] RoboEarth is about building a knowledge base, and while it may include intelligent web services or a robot app store, it will probably be about as self-aware as Wikipedia.

That said, my colleagues and I believe that if robots are to move out of the factories and work alongside humans, they will need to systematically share data and build on each other’s experience.

Unfortunately, Markus Waibel doesn’t explain why he thinks the analogies are flawed but he does lay out the reasoning for why robots should share information. For a more approachable and much briefer account, you can check out Ariel Schwartz’s Feb. 10, 2011 article on the Fast Company website,

The EU-funded [European Union] RoboEarth project is bringing together European scientists to build a network and database repository for robots to share information about the world. They will, if all goes as planned, use the network to store and retrieve information about objects, locations (including maps), and instructions about completing activities. Robots will be both the contributors and the editors of the repository.

With RoboEarth, one robot’s learning experiences are never lost–the data is passed on for other robots to mine. As RedOrbit explains, that means one robot’s experiences with, say, setting a dining room table could be passed on to others, so the butler robot of the future might know how to prepare for dinner guests without any prior programming.

There is a RoboEarth website, so we humans can get more information and hopefully keep up with the robots.

Happily and as there is with increasing frequency, there’s a Youtube video. This one features a robot downloading information from RoboEarth and using that information in a quasi hospital setting,

I find this use of popular entertainment, particularly obvious with Watson, to communicate about scientific advances quite interesting. On this same theme of popular culture as a means of science communication, I featured a Lady Gaga parody by a lab working on Alzheimer’s in my Jan. 28, 2011 posting.  I also find the reference to “human masters” in the BBC article along with Waibel’s flat assertion that some science fiction analogies about artificial intelligence are flawed indicative of some very old anxieties as expressed in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

ETA Feb. 14, 2011: The latest posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog, I, For One, Welcome Our Robot Game Show Overlords, features another opinion about the Watson appearances on Jeopardy. From the posting,

What will this mean? Given that a cursory search suggests opinion is divided on whether Watson will win this week, I have no idea. While it will likely be entertaining, and does represent a significant step forward in computing capabilities, I can’t help but think about the supercomputing race that makes waves only when a new computational record is made. It’s nice, and might prompt government action should they lose the number one standing. But what does it mean? What new outcomes do we have because of this? The conversation is rarely about what, to me, seems more important.

3 thoughts on “Intelligence, computers, and robots

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Intelligence, computers, and robots « FrogHeart --

  2. Pingback: Robot ethics at Vancouver’s next Café Scientifique « FrogHeart

  3. Pingback: RoboEarth’s Rapyuta, a cloud engine for the robot internet « FrogHeart

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *