Chatbots today pop up at websites in smartphone apps; the same technology helps robots, smart speakers, and other machines operate in a more human-like way. The idea of conversing with a computer is nothing new. As far back as the 1960s, a natural language processing program named Eliza matched typed remarks with scripted responses. The software identified key words and responded with phrases that made it seem as though the computer was responding conversationally. Since then, such conversational interfaces--also known as virtual agents--have advanced remarkably due to greater processing power, cloud computing, and ongoing improvements in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
Inside the University of Rochester's Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, a robotic torso looms over a row of plastic gears and blocks, awaiting instructions. Next to him, Jacob Arkin '13, a doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering, gives the robot a command: "Pick up the middle gear in the row of five gears on the right," he says to the Baxter Research Robot. The robot, sporting a University of Rochester winter cap, pauses before turning, extending its right limb in the direction of the object. Baxter, along with other robots in the lab, is learning how to perform human tasks and to interact with people as part of a human-robot team. "The central theme through all of these is that we use language and machine learning as a basis for robot decision making," says Thomas Howard '04, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the University's robotics lab.
It was the organizers' belief that "significant advances can be made" in at least one, if not several of these specific areas of concern through a joint effort of a "carefully selected group of scientists". And what's more, this advancement could be quicker than many though possible. While there already had been significant developments in automata – machines that can carry preprogrammed and predetermined functions – it was the conference organizers' belief, especially McCarthy, that there was a mountain of potential for the development of truly "intelligent" machines that could essentially, think for themselves. It was his further belief that through the joint effort of likeminded people willing to "devote time to it…could make real progress". It would turn out, he was correct. In the years that followed the crucial conference in the summer of 1956, advancements in artificial intelligence began to become ever-more rapid.
With the appearance of intelligent personal assistants (IPA) supported by machine learning such as Siri on iOS or Alexa for Amazon, the above scene does not sound like science fiction anymore. If we also consider how Cognitoys support the cognitive development of small children with the help of AI in a fun and gentle way, personal health assistants on our phones suddenly become definite responses for certain needs. They can make our lives more comfortable and they could pay attention to our very personal wishes through constant learning – which might also have some downsides. Remember the movie entitled Her? The main protagonist, Joaquin Phoenix falls completely in love with the voice of a digital assistant capable of learning at astonishing pace as well as fulfilling his every need.
Andrew Heikkila is a tech enthusiast and writer from Boise, Idaho. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain. Time to die." -- Roy Batty, Blade Runner Artificial intelligence has fascinated mankind for more than half a century, with the first public mention of computer intelligence recorded during a London lecture by Alan Turing in 1947.