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banner Monday, 10 September, 2001, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Past is the future for Hollywood's robots
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

If you believed everything you saw in the movies, you could be forgiven for thinking that artificial intelligence (AI) research had not moved on since the late 1950s.

In almost all the Hollywood movies that feature AI or explore its implications, the unspoken assumption is that all researchers in the field are out to create surrogate humans or computerised brains that threaten our existence with their utterly impersonal view of events.

This is true even of Spielberg's film AI which, despite being set in the future, takes a decidedly old-fashioned view of artificial intelligence. It is perhaps no surprise that it does, given that its screenplay is based on a short story published in 1969.

But many other Hollywood movies persist in pushing this view of AI. If truth be told, AI scientists have moved on from trying to instil human intelligence into a robotic or computerised guise.

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"AI used to be seen as recreating disembodied rational intelligence," said Dr Inman Harvey, an evolutionary roboticist from the School of Cognitive and Computing Science at the University of Sussex, UK. "We're getting away from disembodied intelligence and turning to the adaptive behaviour of simple, though still very complex, animals."

Now AI researchers concentrating on smaller, smarter embodied (read: robot) machines because 40 years of work has proved that the job of recreating any intelligence, let alone that of a human, is much harder than was first thought.

Nowadays, few sensible AI researchers are given to the sweeping predictions made during the field's early years. In the 1960s, Herbert Simon confidently declared that it would take machines only 20 years to catch up, and surpass, humans.

Trying to make robots as smart as insects makes sense when you consider how rare humans are. People are numerous but make up only one out of approximately 4,000 species of mammals, and an even smaller fraction of the many millions of other species crammed on to the planet.

The majority of these other species get around by creeping or crawling, and more can be learned about intelligence by mimicking what they do than it can by building a brain.

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Part of the reason for this is because notions of intelligence have changed too. In the early days of AI, intelligence was thought to be all about being good at maths, chess and logic; something that disembodied brains are good at because it requires no knowledge of the real world.

"Now we talk about intelligence in terms of the ability to survive in whatever environment you are in," said Dr Martin Smith, chairman of the Cybernetics Society and an experienced robot maker.

He said that many AI researchers now favour small, smart robots because of an increasing suspicion about sofware worlds. "A simulation is just so divorced from reality that, while its not entirely valueless, it's really not a very useful tool," said Mr Smith.

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Far better, he said, was to build a robot that had to confront and overcome real world problems such as navigating across a floor strewn with obstacles. A robot that can do that is likely to be more useful, and finished sooner than a machine that is the intellectual equal of a human.

Hollywood preferred humanoid robots and computerised brains because it was easier to build a story around them, said Dr Bob Fisher, an AI researcher from the University of Edinburgh, and an expert on movie representations of artificial intelligence.

But, he said, in many cases the robots are being used as ciphers to confront some of our own fears and ask unsettling questions about what it means to be human. "I think human beings are very afraid of the Frankenstein type aspects of AI," he said. "Because of the rapid pace of technology and change, people have genuine anxiety about it."

We perhaps fear what rampant technology will do to us rather than for us.

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But many AI researchers believe that an era of malevolent machines is not about to dawn, and we are not about to be culled by robots and machines that are smarter and stronger than we are.

"Robots are running 40 years behind computers," said Dr Harvey from Sussex. "In the 1950s, there were half a dozen computers in the world and the numbers have grown exponentially so now I have three on my person."

Robots will proliferate in a similar way, and smart robots will gradually worm their way into our lives, and take on the jobs we don't like or can't do. Far from being a threat, they could soon be as indispensable as mobile phones and as ubiquitous. We won't be able to imagine life without them.

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