What is Artificial Intelligence?

AI, or Artificial Intelligence, is a branch of computer science that relates to making computers that seem to copy the actions of, and behave like, human beings. Whether you fear their potential or welcome them with open arms, artificial intelligence has been the stuff of dreams for centuries. From the earliest automatons (a.k.a. automata), to robotic soldiers, man’s desire to imbue “life” into inanimate objects has grown into an industry that is now worth billions of dollars worldwide.

History of Artificial Intelligence

AI - AutomatonAutomatons – defined as mechanical devices that imitate the actions of human beings – are nothing new. Ancient Greeks wrote mythical stories about them and they, as well as the Egyptians and Romans, built automatons that were used to entertain and impress. These were remarkable feats of engineering for their time.

The first automatic door opener and vending machine were invented by Heron, a Greek engineer who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, between AD 10-70. These inventions were created for temples: the vending machine dispensed holy water after a coin was dropped into a slot; the automatic doors swung open as worshipers approached them and thus created mystery and awe. Some examples of later automatons that still exist today, are Juanelo Turriano’s Mechanical Monk that can walk and mouth devotionals, and Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s three wooden dolls, each of which can write or draw pictures or play tunes.

The term Artificial Intelligence was first coined by John McCarthy, said to be the father of AI, in his 1955 proposal for a conference at Dartmouth University that would take place the following year. In 1958, he invented the LISP computer language that became the standard Artificial Intelligence programming language, and which continues to be used in robotics today. It is the second-oldest language, after Fortran, and is still used in internet-based services, such as airline scheduling and credit card fraud detection. It also led to the development of voice recognition technology, including Apple iPhone’s Siri which is similar to Google’s Allo.

LISP In 1956, Unimation was the first company to produce a robot. These were known as Programmable Transfer Machines as their function was to move items from one area to another. This was followed in 1969 by the development of the Stanford Arm that could assemble and weld. Victor Scheinman, the inventor, later sold his ideas to Unimation and the company went on to develop applications for General Motors, using his ideas. They were later marketed as the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (PUMA).

In the last 20 years, Artificial Intelligence has been used in exploration on Earth and Mars, data mining, households, logistics, medical diagnostics, the military and security, to name a few.

ASIMO, Ivan, Roomba and Beyond

Roomba is the name of the autonomous vacuum cleaner, developed by iRobot, that can communicate with a base station, move from room to room, sense obstacles, perceive the danger of stairs, and return to its home base when finished cleaning. Who doesn’t want one of these labor-saving devices?

RoombaASIMO, designed by Honda, is a mobile assistant that was designed to use its AI to assist humans with disabilities. It can recognize voices and sounds, climb stairs, run at about 9kms/hour and respond to questions by nodding or providing verbal answers in a variety of languages. This machine (dare I say?) looks cute and, with its non-threatening visage, even looks as if it could be a junior Star Wars Storm Trooper before it’s trained to kill. It could be an ideal companion for the elderly and infirm.

And then there’s Ivan the Terminator.

Ivan was designed, by Russian scientists, to operate in areas that are dangerous to humans, e.g. fires, explosions and radiation, but it can be an effective soldier on a battlefield. It can also drive a vehicle and copy exact human movements when it is controlled by a remotely-located human who wears a control suit through which sensors read and relay fine motor movements. The U.S.A. and China are also continuing to increase their super-soldiers of the future. They don’t need clothes, sleep, food or shelter and they aren’t affected by personal problems or weather. Formidable, indeed.

There’s no end to the number of applications that artificially intelligent robotics can be designed to function in, removing humans from the equation. But what are the cons?

Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

There are currently two classes of ethics under consideration: robot ethics (a.k.a. roboethics) and machine ethics.

Robotic ethics has to do with the ethics of the developer such, as the purpose of the robot to either help or harm humans. Some people encourage the use of robotics for care purposes as they’re not subject to the same stresses of human carers, but others say that it dehumanizes the process of care and could lead to receiver of that care feeling isolated and ignored as there won’t be any level of human interaction. What about AI systems that listen into and process human interactions for the purpose of reporting information? Is that not a privacy issue?

Terminsator Artificial IntelligenceMachine ethics relates to the AI machine behaving in a moral way. It seems odd to think that this is even a consideration because, surely, it is the responsibility of the programmer to ensure that only “the good stuff” is allowed. It was discovered, however, in 2009, that robots that worked together at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems in Lausanne, Switzerland, learnt to lie – so we may not even be able to have AI judge and jury systems in the belief that they would not have personal agendas or beliefs that cloud their thinking. If machines can learn to lie, might they not also learn to have prejudices?

There will have to be rules and watch-dog bodies that set up parameters within which artificially intelligent machines can operate.

Before we all run for cover, though, let’s remember that the humans can always disengage the machines’ batteries if something goes awry. Or is that wrong? Will it be seen as maltreatment of an artificially intelligent entity? Only time will tell.