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06-Talkingheads - 7 Talking Heads For centuries people have...

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7 Talking Heads For centuries, people have been terrified that their pro- grammed creations might outsmart them, overpower them, or put them out of work. The fear has long been played out in fiction, from the medieval Jewish legend of the Golem, a clay automaton animated by an inscription of the name of God placed in its mouth, to HAL, the mutinous computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But when the branch of engineering called "artificial intelligence" (AI) was born in the 1950s, it looked as though fiction was about to turn into frighten- ing fact. It is easy to accept a computer calculating pi to a million decimal places or keeping track of a company's payroll, but suddenly computers were also proving theorems in logic and playing respect- able chess. In the years following there came computers that could beat anyone but a grand master, and programs that outperformed most experts at recommending treatments for bacterial infections and investing pension funds. With computers solving such brainy tasks, it seemed only a matter "of time before a C3PO or a Terminator would be available from the mail-order catalogues; only the easy tasks remained to be programmed. According to legend, in the 1970s Marvin Minsky, one of the founders of AI, assigned "vision" to a graduate student as a summer project. But household robots are still confined to science fiction. The main lesson of thirty-five years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard. The mental abilities of a four- year-old that we take for granted—recognizing a face, lifting a pencil, walking across a room, answering a question—in fact solve some of 192
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Talking Heads 193 the hardest engineering problems ever conceived. Do not be fooled by the assembly-line robots in the automobile commercials; all they do is weld and spray-paint, tasks that do not require these clumsy Mr. Magoos to see or hold or place anything. And if you want to stump an artificial intelligence system, ask it questions like, Which is bigger, Chicago or a breadbox? Do zebras wear underwear? Is the floor likely to rise up and bite you? If Susan goes to the store, does her head go with her? Most fears of automation are misplaced. As the new generation of intelligent devices appears, it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, recep- tionists, and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come. Understanding a sentence is one of these hard easy problems. To interact with computers we still have to learn their languages; they are not smart enough to learn ours. In fact, it is all too easy to give computers more credit at understanding than they deserve. Recently an annual competition was set up for the computer pro- gram that can best fool users into thinking that they are conversing with another human. The competition for the Loebner Prize was intended to implement a suggestion made by Alan Turing in a famous 1950 paper. He suggested that the philosophical question "Can ma-
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