Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Common Ground Between Robots and Humans: Machines of Loving Grace


"Two Paths Toward Our Robot Future"
From The New Yorker - October 1, 2015
"In 1970, Life magazine published an article about a Stanford University research project that had resulted in the construction of what it called the first-ever “electronic person.” This creature, called Shakey, was a six-foot-tall robot on wheels, and it looked like a filing cabinet carrying around an elaborate video camera. It was an early experiment in artificial intelligence, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA—the technological research arm of the Pentagon—and conceived by the Canadian applied physicist Charles Rosen. It was the first robot designed to be entirely autonomous, to reason and make decisions based on information about its environment. Shakey was intended as a prototype for more advanced automatons that would eventually replace human beings in dangerous and hostile territories, and its makers saw it as the advance guard of a near future in which humans would be emulated, and eventually replaced, by intelligent machines. Shakey’s degree of autonomy was much more limited than that suggested by Life’s Promethean claims; its movements were slow and halting, and its battery tended to die after a few minutes of juddering operation. But many of the project’s innovations eventually entered the bloodstream of modern technology: the mapping software in your smartphone, for instance, was first used in Shakey, and Siri’s voice-command technology is a successor of a speech-control mechanism that was pioneered for the project.

Shakey is introduced in the early pages of John Markoff’s new book, “Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots,” as an example of an ongoing conflict between artificial intelligence and the linked but divergent project of intelligence augmentation. (The robot was intended to replace people in specific situations, but its technologies wound up augmenting the intelligence, or at least the efficiency, of flesh-and-blood humans.) Markoff begins with the story of Bill Duvall, a young programmer hired to write code for Shakey. Duvall became frustrated with the limitations of the robotics project and decamped to another research group, just down the hall at Stanford Research Institute, which was engaged in an entirely different sort of enterprise, called the N.L.S., or “oN-Line System.” This project, led by a computer scientist named Doug Engelbart, was aimed at creating “an interactive system to capture knowledge and organize information in such a way that it would now be possible for a small group of people—scientists, engineers, educators—to create and collaborate more effectively.” The project, in other words, was an early version of the Internet. Not long after walking down the hall and leaving Shakey to its own limited and whirring devices, Duvall used Engelbart’s N.L.S. software to connect a computer in Menlo Park to one in Los Angeles via a data line rented from a phone company. “Bill Duvall,” as Markoff puts it, “would become the first to make the leap from research to replace humans with computers to using computers to augment the human intellect, and one of the first to stand on both sides of an invisible line that even today divides two rival, insular engineering communities.” ...

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