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Post-Brunch Intelligencer

Midmorning ramblings on the state of the species

The Hunt for HAL

Posted by Nath at 8:29 AM
I am a HAL 9000 computer, Production Number 3. I became operational at the HAL Plant in Urbana, Illinois, on January 12, 1997.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Don't tell Him I said this (if you did, He'd probably deny it) but I think, as a species, Mankind is lonely. He has meticulously explored His own backyard (or, perhaps more accurately, His living room). Having solved some of its mysteries and lost interest in the others, He is bored. He looks to the stars for guidance, for companionship – and above all, for competition. Man likes competition. He likes being the underdog. He likes big, epic battles against the odds. (I mean the fun battles – the ones that get made into movies later on. Not the boring sort, like the ones against poverty, disease and hunger.) And so He pulls a big pile of nuts, bolts and wires out of the cupboard, and gets to work. If the stars don't give Him a playmate, He'll build one Himself.

That, I think, explains in a nutshell the human fascination for artificial intelligence. Prophets have been saying for decades now that true, human-level AI is just around the corner. Well, 1997 has come and gone; we're still waiting for HAL. We keep hearing about how processors are septupling in power every twelve minutes; what's happening with all our shiny new computing cycles?

Alas; AI is not (yet) a problem that can be solved by throwing more hardware at it. Hardware might be getting faster and cheaper as manufacturers practice, refine and improve their methods, but the field of AI still belongs to the academicians. It's not just a matter of refining existing techniques; there are still significant conceptual hurdles standing between us and HAL.

The biggest hurdle of all, however, is not one of academics, but one of perception. In the context of AI, people still associate intelligence with linguistic ability. Unfortunately, natural language is inherently ambiguous. An ambiguous language cannot be described through concrete rules; it relies too heavily on context. The only way to teach context is by example. Herein lies the problem: you can't get a research grant allowing you to spend two years standing in front of a computer going 'A for Apple, B for Borland'. That's why I think natural language processing will be the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place.

So where are we now? A lot of not-so-glamorous progress has been made in AI over the past few decades. What a lot of people don't realize is that computers can, in fact, be made to reason, as long as the problem is presented in the right format. Machine learning has also been around for a while, and is apparently experiencing a resurgence of sorts with the revival of statistics-based AI.

What do you get when you put reason and learning together in a blender? That's right – intelligence. Those science fiction gurus may not have been so far off the mark after all. HAL may indeed be around the corner – if there is economic justification for him. He probably won't be able to speak, but he will be smart enough to provide some interesting competition.
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2006 in a nutshell

Posted by Nath at 11:59 PM
If you have a calendar handy, you've probably noticed that today was new year's day. This means, of course, that you can't throw an iPod into a newsstand without hitting a dozen 'Top stories of 2005' lists. I was a bit late jumping onto the bandwagon this year, so I figured I'd try something a little unconventional instead. Here, in no particular order, are my predictions for the top ten stories of 2006.
  1. 'Web 2.0' hailed as the next big thing; the expression still doesn't mean anything.
  2. Apple releases shiny white thing in a box; takes market by storm.
  3. Natural disaster strikes disaster-prone area. World community pledges unprecedented sum toward relief efforts.
  4. Natural disaster strikes another disaster-prone area. World community doesn't notice.
  5. New research proves that coffee and sunlight cause certain types of cancer.
  6. New research proves that coffee and sunlight prevent certain types of cancer.
  7. Celebrities do stuff. Newspapers write about them.
  8. Bad stuff happens in the Middle East. Gas prices hit new high.
  9. Bad stuff continues. Gas prices beat previous high. Thousands starve, unable to afford gas and too lazy to walk to the grocery store.
  10. US Senate approves bill allowing the FBI to staple RFID tags to everybody's forehead. Privacy activists protest, but nobody listens.
There – now that I've freed you from having to read the papers this year, you've got time for another top ten list you probably haven't seen before. In May, the UN published a list of Ten Stories the World Should Hear More About. 2004's list is also available, and still mostly relevant.
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