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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 March, 2004, 11:26 GMT
A Grand plan for brainy robots
By Nick Dermody
BBC News Online Wales

Steve Grand and his robot creation, Lucy
Day trip from home: Steve Grand takes Lucy to his lecture
On a good day, Lucy can tell a banana apart from an apple.

And that's handy skill to have if you are an orang-utan. Even a robotic one.

It might not sound like much to a too-clever-to-know-it human like you or me, but it represents pioneering work in the field of artificial intelligence.

And it is all down to one man working alone for years - in his garage - because his mind is fired up by the power of the brain.

Steve Grand - an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University's School of Psychology - has carved himself a reputation at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence or AI, a title used by Steven Spielberg for his 2001 film starring Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law.

It's a branch of science which for many conjures up fears of super-clever robots, the likes of Frankenstein, or even C3PO - getting the upper hand against us flesh-and-blood types.

By going back to first principles, this self-taught scientist has created one of the most advanced robot "brains" in the world.

Brains are for predicting things. That's very important if you are fast-moving little animal, it stops you bumping into things
Steve Grand

His baby, Lucy, may not be much to look at, but she represents perhaps the best example yet of how far we can get computers to "think" for themselves - one of the most advanced artificial life-forms in existence.

And, according to Grand, that is not very far at all.

The 46-year-old science writer gave a lecture on his work on Wednesday at Cardiff University, on his quest to create the first robot with a true mind of its own.

His creature has five household computers to help her make decisions, but still struggles to see things that people - in fact anything with a mammalian brain - take for granted. Such as the difference between a banana and an apple.

Lucy, the robot with a brain
The eye has it: Lucy interprets the image she 'sees' through a camera

Grand cuts an unlikely figure as a man hailed - by some of the professors in his audience - as someone who is helping to tie in the ever-diverging paths of scientific research.

He flunked a teachers' training course and still has no qualifications higher than A levels to his name.

But, though the prospect of standing front of a roomful of children terrified him, he was awestruck by their ability to learn.

Then he got into computers, which led to him making his first mark in the AI field when he became the lead designer of the '90s computer game, Creatures, which encouraged players to care for computer-generated "pets".

He has tried to morph computers and psychology ever since, and his garage at home in Shipham, Somerset, is probably better equipped than some labs he could now work in.

Yet he is still waiting for the key breakthrough, the one sentence or "formula" for describing what the brain - and its intelligence - is actually for.

Cover of Growing Up with Lucy (photo courtesy Cyberlife-Research)
Growing pains: Steve Grand's book recounts Lucy's first year of 'life'

"Until we've got that, we will never be able to make artificial intelligence," he said.

"I think I'm beginning to get some of the elements of this one-sentence solution.

"Brains are for predicting things. That's very important if you are a fast-moving little animal, it stops you bumping into things."

But just how the mammalian brain, from mice to mammoths, is able to do this, still stymies science, he says.

He designed Lucy so her one working eye, a digital camera, would have to interpret images as closely as possible to the way the human brain does (rather than cheating by simply using software for the job).

After years of trial and error, Lucy's 50,000 complex neurons can now tell the difference between something long and yellow and something round and green. On a good day.

Family affair

The good days ran out when the money did, which is why he was in Cardiff to promote his latest book, Growing up with Lucy: How to Build an Android in 20 Easy Steps.

The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts helped him out with a one-year grant, but he still prefers to work alone than be tied to a job in a big institution.

He said: "The problem with that is you have to 'collaborate' with one person who is an expert in this and another who is an expert in that.

"But nobody has the kind of overview that I have, which is kind of how I got not to be an expert in anything."

Despite his self-deprecatory style, his star is rising. He was awarded an OBE for his work on Creatures, and work on Lucy's sibling, Lucy II, will resume just as soon as the cash is available.

It may even become a family affair, as his son is currently doing his psychology PhD at Cardiff.

No robot risk

But he insists he is not inadvertently building humanity's android nemesis in his back yard.

He said: "It took mammals millions of years to develop human intelligence and the organic brain learns much faster than an artificial one.

"And why should intelligence always mean something bad or evil?

"I like 'intelligent' people. It's the thick ones that worry me."

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