Artificial Intelligence: The Origin of The Future
In recent years, artificial intelligence (A.I.) technologies have developed dramatically. Today, they are not only a prerogative of big tech giants. A.I. plays a role in many aspects of our daily lives from morning until night.
Siri and Alexa answer our questions. Google Maps is our can’t-live-without co-pilot and always find the quickest route to our destination and more. More often, our chance to get a job depends on A.I. resume screening. The list of examples is still very long. It includes the Smart Replies in Gmail, product recommendations performed by Amazon, Netflix, or Spotify, and personal alerts provided by mobile banking apps.
Let’s discover together what A.I. is by examining its fascinating story from theory to practice in a journey made of “golden ages” and “winters”.
A.I. is an interdisciplinary field spanning computer science, engineering, linguistics, psychology and can be defined as
Although the term “artificial intelligence” has been coined in 1955, A.I. is generally accepted as having its roots in the invention of robots. Since ancient times, humans have been fascinated with “artificial beings.” They have attempted to build self-operating machines resembling animals and humans. At first, the goal was to replicate the body. Since the 1950s the challenge has become the replication of the brain and its mental processes.
It is essential to clarify that A.I. and robotics are two different fields that mingle only in artificially intelligent robots. In robots controlled by A.I., robotics is the body while A.I. is the brain.
However, since the seeds of A.I. were planted with the first rudimental robots, even if not artificially intelligent, it is fascinating to trace their history because it demonstrates that projects and innovation are not built in a day but need time to develop in a continuous process.
From robots to artificially intelligent robots
The Czech writer Karel Capek formally introduced the word robot in his 1921 play, “R.U. R” (Rossum’s Universal Robots). However, its first application can be traced back to the third century.
The father of robots, indeed, is the life-sized automaton invented by Yen Shi. It was built with leather, wood, and artificial organs. It was able to move and perform several unique functions. It can sing! It was so life-like that King Mu of Zhou believed it to be a human being.
During the Renaissance period, Leonardo da Vinci made a detailed study of human anatomy. He spent long hours dissecting corpses to figure out how the human body worked, which gave him a solid background to design his humanoid robot. It was a knight robot, driven by pulleys and cables, and stood-up, sit-down, wave arms and move head and jaw. Leonardo’s robot was used primarily for entertainment, in particular, to brighten up the parties of his patron Ludovico Sforza. Unfortunately, the robot has not survived, but Da Vinci’s sketchbooks, rediscovered in the 1950s, were a source of inspiration for a generation of robotic researchers to design planetary exploration robots used by NASA or innovative surgical systems (i.e., Da Vinci by Intuitive Surgical).
Then, in the 18th century, the French inventor and artist Jacques de Vaucanson created the “Flute Player”, an innovative “automaton” able to play the pipe using the same method as a human would: air. It is the first robot to be recognized as revolutionary (but still not intelligent), and it even had a repertoire of 12 songs!
Machina Speculatrix, invented by William Grey Walter in 1948, was the first electronic autonomous robot. The machine had a light sensor, touch sensor, propulsion motor, steering motor, and a two vacuum tube analog computer. It could generate complex behaviors as a function of the interaction between its simple reflexes and a complex world without any human training control. For the first time, a machine exhibited behavior that appears intelligent.
Can machines think?
In the 1950s, the British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing posed the emblematic question, “Can machines think?”. It was a crucial step in the history of A.I., and Turing’s publication’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” marks a turning point. The interest was not focused anymore on machines/robots able to walk, sing, or play instruments. The core of the discussion was about building intelligent machines, solving problems, making decisions like humans, and testing their intelligence.
It is interesting to observe that we enter a multidisciplinary perspective with Turing, typical of A.I., which includes computer science, psychology, and logic.
Using a pragmatic approach, Turing elaborated a test to evaluate machine intelligence by assuming that a computer that is indistinguishable from an intelligent human is a machine able to think.
However, Turing’s goal to build intelligent machines was stopped by two obstacles:
- at that time, computers lacked an essential pre-requisite of intelligence since they were not able to store commands (they could only execute them);
- computers were costly. It has been estimated that in 1950, leasing a computer was around $200,000 a month.
August 31, 1955: A.I.’s birth and its manifesto
On August 31, 1955, the American computer scientist John McCarthy coined the term “Artificial Intelligence.” On that date, indeed, he wrote a proposal along with Marvin Minsky, Nathaniel Rochester, and Claude Shannon to the Rockefeller Foundation titled “A Proposal for the Dartmouth summer research project on Artificial Intelligence.”
This proposal can be considered the manifesto of A.I. and McCarthy’s words explain the mission of A.I. entirely:
“We propose that a two month, a ten-man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The study is to proceed based on the conjecture that every aspect of learning and any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves”
The conference provided an intellectual framework for all subsequent computer research and development efforts in A.I’s emerging field.
Although John McCarthy was the one who coined and defined the term “artificial intelligence,” A.I. has five “founding fathers”: Alan Turing, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Allen Newell, and Herbert A. Simon.
1957- 1974: A.I. flourishing
The obstacles that had stopped Turing were overcome: computers became faster, store more information, and cheaper. A.I. flourished.
In 1957 Frank Rosenblatt developed the Perceptron, an early artificial neural network enabling pattern recognition based on a two-layer computer learning network. The New Times defined it as “ the embryo of an electronic computer that [the Navy] expects will be able to walk, talk, see, write, reproduce itself and be conscious of its existence.” Computers started to solve many complex mathematical problems that soon became of interest to the Department of Defense of the USA.
In 1965, Joseph Weizenbaum passed the Turing test, with ELIZA the first interactive computer program able to converse with humans in English like a human itself. ELIZA is the mother of our Siri and Alexa.
Thus, in the early 1970s, machines were able to see, move, and converse.
After a period of slowdowns in the 80s, named AI Winter, a new golden era restarted due to machines’ development with increasing computational power. This new capability allowed A.I. to achieved landmark goals.
A real break-through occurred on May 11, 1997, when IBM’s Deep Blue, a chess-playing computer program, beat the reigning world chess champion, Gary Kasparov. This proved Deep Blue computation allowed it to be better than humans at chess, which has long been considered a game of intellect!
AI has a fascinating and compelling past, but what is it in store for the future?
The hope is that A.I. applications will be more and more helpful in medicine, scientific discovery, agriculture, and climate change. However, only if we succeed in creating ethical standards A.I. will benefit society.