Systems Engineer trapped on Earth...

Pop Culture And A.I.

ai_64  Early history
The idea of automated beings able to think for themselves goes all the way back to ancient times, when stories of Greek and Western mythology told of living statues and dragon’s teeth coming to life as sentient or subservient beings. Some of the earliest ideas about robots in the mechanical sense began when the Industrial Revolution spawned a technological tidal wave, prompting people to realize automated machines could be possible. However, from the beginning there has been a negative aspect to the idea of free-thinking artificial life in literature and movies, which has led to perhaps an apathy in modern depictions.

Credit Frankenstein
One of the earliest novels to be considered science fiction was the classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Published in 1818, the story tells of a man made of mechanical and human parts brought to life by a mad scientist. Although not possessing many of the characteristics of modern robots and A.I., the story immediately set the tone for the way artificial life was depicted in literary and pop culture. As in Frankenstein, some of the earliest stories and films portrayed them as things to fear and destroy. This theme has become synonymous with artificial life and intelligence, and is often used in film. Man vs. Machine is a literary theme taught in English and creative writing classes the world over.

Modern film history is full of notable and famous evil or flawed artificial intelligences/robots. The robots in 1927’s Metropolis, one of the earliest depictions of real robots in film, told a story about robots in a factory turning on their human masters. Gort, the menacing giant mechanical being in 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still nearly killed his master’s girlfriend before she could spit out the command to make him stop. HAL 9000, the A.I. turned murderous in 2001: A Space Odyssey, became the first electronic schizophrenic when he murdered his human coworkers because of a logic flaw. The T-800 cyborg from The Terminator wanted only the destruction of human Sara Connor. JOSHUA from WarGames tried to play global thermonuclear war with the world; for real. And who could forget the frightening red droid Maximillian in Disney’s original Black Hole? That was one of the robots that actually scared me when I saw him on screen as a kid.

Probably one of the best modern television shows about Man vs. Machine is Battlestar Galactica, created in 2003 and based off an earlier series. In it the evil Cylon robots have launched an all out war of genocide against their human makers but they are also religious, capable of love, and even procreation, evolving into something more than just machines. An overriding technophobia is depicted on the show as well, in that the crew of the Galactica are wary of computer networks and high technology that could be usurped or sabotaged by the enemy.

The earliest literature about modern robots appeared in the 1920s, but the idea of artificial life goes back even further. Homer wrote about maidens made of gold in the Iliad, and Steam Man of the Prairies, written in 1865, tells about a mechanical man powered by steam. Issac Asimov made a huge impact on it’s depiction in his Robots series of short stories and novels beginning in the early 1950s, where the word robotics was first used in print. Although he didn’t vilify A.I. he did explore several moral and philosophical issues in his stories, which usually centered around the Three Laws of Robotics and a robots ability to obey them. The first one warns that a robot should never allow a human to come to harm through action or inaction. It’s this primary moral issue that is the theme of many of Asimov’s stories, and some of them included robots turning on their human overseers.

In literature, evil A.I. has also become part of other genres outside of science fiction, such as the novel The Dark Tower by Stephen King, in which an A.I. called Blaine the Mono is met by the main characters. He controls the rail system and the city of Lud. Although not belligerent, he is not that helpful and the heroes must figure out how he works in order to control him. There is also the novel Demon Seed, which is a horror story involving an A.I. that attempts to take over the world and impregnate a human female. It was also later made into a film that ended with the birth of the baby. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, androids are not permitted on Earth and the main character is a bounty hunter charged with eliminating them. The film Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford was loosely based on it.

Geeks love it
Those who aren’t bothered by the possibility of true A.I. are the scientists who are currently studying and working on them. People who tend to embrace or work heavily with technology are also more open to the idea of intelligent systems. It’s the general public, who’s only real association with artificial intelligence is what they see in films and books, that is likely to have the most negative perception. However if popular culture has made a menace of the idea in the minds of common people, how will they be able to accept true A.I. when and if it does appear?

It’s possible that we may see early robots and A.I. purposefully made only as smart as say, a five year old child, so that some form of control can be maintained. Certainly when the age of robots begins to appear and they’re integrated into daily life, different aspects of human society are not going to warm up to the idea at first. Asimov wrote a story about that very thing in That Thou Art Mindful Of Him in which the main manufacturer of robots tries to introduce them on Earth.

So how are we going to be able to create true A.I. if we are afraid of the outcome? Will this hold us back from reaching that goal? Will we only be able to go so far because we fear the consequences? If the public’s perception of advanced A.I. makes them technophobic, how will it ever be accepted?

On A Positive Note
There’s much to be said about the positive side to the debate as well. Many benign A.I. and robots made famous in films and literature also abound. Often these take on the form of friendly entities that assist their human masters. The droids from the legendary Star Wars series, R2-D2 and C-3PO, come to mind. The saga’s creator George Lucas himself always claimed that R2 was the biggest hero of his 6 films, pointing out that he is always there to rescue someone or save the day. At the same time, we were introduced to an evil cyborg in Episode III with the character General Grievous, which points out a curious trend for including a bad robot/A.I. if there is a good one.

The 1986 film Short Circuit introduced Johnny Five, the robot that comes to life after being struck by lightning. He is probably one of the most memorable friendly robots in pop culture, as most can’t forget his signature line “Number Five is alive!!” and his adventures trying to stay that way despite an army hot on his trail bent on his destruction.

In Asimov’s novel The Caves of Steel, a robot named R. Daneel Olivaw assists a human detective in solving a murder. The two characters would become the writer’s favorite antagonists. The B-9 robot from Lost In Space faithfully warned the Robinson family of danger and protected them. Marvin the Paranoid Android in the novel Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy helped his friends, although annoyed them with his depressive personality. The book also had other notable A.I. like Eddie , the starship Heart of Gold’s computer , and Deep Thought, the supercomputer that frustrated a galaxy with his enigmatic answer to life, the universe, and everything – 42.

Television brought us notables like Max Headroom, the A.I. that roamed a futuristic television network. Lieutenant Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of the first androids in Trekdom. And who could forget Ziggy, the supercomputer that aided Dr. Sam Beckett on Quantum Leap.

Arguably, as far as entertainment value goes the evil ones are easier to remember. But although the bad guys in movies are always more fun because of their deviousness and the fact that they’re not real, a negative message has been spread throughout culture for decades. The bright side of this is that there will always be some people willing to push the boundaries of fear, imagination, and impossibility. However, both professionals and hobbyists in the industry feel that A.I.’s image is just fine and that the negative perceptions in pop culture haven’t harmed it.

AI Will Evolve
“Hollywood is the greatest advertisement for A.I. and robotics in history. The problem is with academic scientists and engineers not living up to the public’s expectations. A system like ALICE, which has won the award for coming closest to passing the Turing Test, could never be built in a University research lab. The pressure to be politically correct and to confine one’s research to the areas approved by the establishment, not to mention the scale in years and manpower, would prohibit any kind of believable A.I.. from emerging from a University, or any government-funded research lab.” says Dr. Rich Wallace, inventor of ALICE /AIML and chairman of the ALICE A.I. Foundation.

“One of the biggest obstacles to human acceptance of chat robots is suspension of disbelief. A child can have more fun with a bot than an adult, because the kid will forgive the bot when it breaks down and gives an incorrect answer. Adults, especially highly educated ones, will tend to be more critical of the bot’s mistakes. There is actually a tension between part of people who want bots to be like superintelligent machines, always accurate, truthful, and precise; versus the part of us that wants robots to be more human, which means something like the opposite: sloppy, lying, funny, hypnotic, charismatic, and maybe sometimes truthful and accurate. Robots might be telling us to get over ourselves.”

The march of progress may be a factor as well, since like all technology A.I. research continually moves forward. And similar to other technological advances, it will do so without regard to the public’s perception of it. Many of the most famous inventions of our time were once looked upon as useless, dangerous, or just plain unacceptable.

“Moreover, technology has a kind of determinism, or at least a natural course of evolution, that appears to skip over the minds of individual inventors, despite their egos and individual passions. So I don’t think you could do much to help or hurt the advancement of anything by manipulating public perception, not for very long anyway.” Dr. Wallace says.

A recent Botworld poll showed an overwhelming 73% did not think pop culture has hurt the image of A.I. Botmasters and users did feel that there were lots of negative images in pop culture, but that it wouldn’t stop advancement even though the majority agree that fear could hurt research. Some also feel that A.I. will only be as evil as it’s creator. Hmmm, bots don’t kill people, people kill people?

“I just think most do not know about A.I. so the general masses would take pop culture as truth and be afraid of it. But there are others that even though they do not know all about A.I. can take it as it is and realize that it is still Hollywood and TV which does not always give a true, decisive picture of what is reality. ” says Lili., an avid bot user and chairwoman of the Marzbot fan club. “And there are the movies that make it seem like robots will take over, like those with the ability to update themselves and learn. Although that can be a little scary, if WE are the smarter ones, that should never happen.”

“The idea of futuristic robots taking over the earth has been a topic of converse for decades. I think the public has learned that any pop culture which attempts to give A.I. a negative image is purely fictional, and that A.I. can be used for things like marketing, learning, and household-help.” says Darkmonkey, creator of the popular White Warrior series of bot templates.

So it would seem many don’t think a bad image will hurt the advancement of AI, but everyone agrees there is a negativity that has been implanted in public consciousness. Perhaps though, this will help us be more careful of all the consequences we know can happen, thanks mostly to the enduring image of artificial intelligence pop culture has given us.

Bots, A Look At Practical Apps

The definition of a robot or bot according to the dictionary is: A mechanical device that sometimes resembles a human and is capable of performing a variety of often complex human tasks on command or by being programmed in advance.

Today there are millions of bots or robots in existence, doing thousands of different jobs daily. There are many varieties, from the latest electronic floor cleaners to the most advanced artificial intelligence systems. There are physical robots that can walk, talk, & dance like Honda”s Asimo. There are several kinds of manufacturing robots, mechanical arms that weld, bolt, and cut in car factories and assembly lines all over the world. There are robots that mimic facial expressions, talk online, attempt to think like humans, and some of the most advanced of our time are exploring Mars light years away from Earth.

Online Bots
On the web, “bots” is often used to describe user agents like those employed by search engines like Google and Yahoo. These are aka spiders, crawlers, robots, and more. However there is also a class of online bots that use such services like AOL Instant Messenger & MSN. They make use of programming languages like Perl and Visual Basic to interface with software or protocols to communicate with humans and find data. Many online bots use a form of AI to carry conversations with humans that interact with them, including languages like AIML, LISP, and others. Some don”t have an AI at all and cannot talk, but provide data or information in different ways. These bots can be separated into two classes:  AI/chat-oriented and service/information-oriented. Such bots could be one or both.

AI/Chat Oriented
These bots” primary purpose is to have natural language conversations with humans. Some of the famous chat-type AI are Eliza, Ractor, and the more recent Alice. Some of these had a core function inherent in their chat ability. Eliza for example was designed to determine the psychological profile of the person it spoke to, much like a psychologist. Today there are several thousand chat bots online, all in various forms with different purposes, features, and indeed even personalities. The primary interfaces are via instant messaging clients and websites, where the user can initiate a conversation. These bots are limited in scope in that they”re only designed for talking and cannot do much else beyond making assumptions based on natural language, although many are capable of limited reasoning and thinking.

Service/Information Oriented
Bots of this type are generally used to provide information on a variety of subjects to the user. Common applications range from providing daily horoscopes, local weather, and other data-dependent services. These bots typically don”t have conversational ability, but there are many that can do both, including some that do so through natural language. There are also specialized bots in this class, which provide very specific information or services.

These bots are the more intriguing class since they”re capable of so much more than just interpreting responses, and it is also this type that has made more of an advancement. Although both fields move at a rapid pace, providing information and data is a more practical application.

Where from Here?
The future of IM bots will be in providing specific information or services, especially in the enterprise and business world. Companies that utilize large databases or lots of information would be an ideal environment. This would be most advantageous where employees already use instant messaging in their daily collaboration and communication. Some of the possibilities:

An instant messaging or web bot can provide information to remote users without the complications of network logins or VPN.
Open source and well known languages make it easy to customize.
They don”t need web access, just an IM client and a connection.
Fast, ready access to just about any information in an environment most users are already comfortable with.

An entire range of information could be presented in this form. The applications are only limited by imagination and the programmer”s abilities.

Centralized information management would allow everyone to have instant access to the same information in real time.
A single bot could provide the interface to limitless amounts of company information and data for every employee.
Such systems could even be given their own AI personalities tailored to the specifics of the application itself.
Natural language could be used to provide data, eliminating the need for users/employees to learn complicated commands or procedures.
This data could easily be provided to cell phones and PDAs with instant messaging capabilities.

The list could go on, but the idea of such uses isn’t new. Although some are skeptical about the viability of a bot in such a role, there are successful apps already in production environments in the real world. Some interesting ones:

Amazon ASIN search bot from “Amazon Hacks” by Paul Bausch.
The Wall Street Journal bot
The HR Agent from Active Buddy
(Editors note: Active Buddy is now called Colliqus and has moved into automated customer service software that converses in natural language with users.)
AOL’s IM Service for the Hearing Impaired
Keeblers RecipeBuddy (Note: This now appears to be dead since resolves to Kellogs now.)
IBM”s Lotus Sametime bots

Clearly even these uses have a downside since web/server based applications could easily provide the same services and already do, but latest trends show many systems being integrated with IM. A robot application of this nature could become an inexpensive and easy way to provide enterprise-level information and could easily integrate into existing server based systems. It is here in this arena that the use of bots becomes a more compelling solution. Microsoft has an interesting white paper about the subject. Although it focuses primarily on using the RTC Client API, it outlines bot-type applications.

The Future
Bots will always be around even if there is never any real mass appeal for their use. There is a strong hobby community, and many skilled coders operating them. There are several initiatives being taken in the instant messaging industry at the moment that may make the future a lot brighter for the concept though. Currently most of the major IM networks such as AOL & Microsoft have begun offering enterprise instant messaging products geared specifically toward business. This was in light of employees beginning to use consumer oriented IM networks for work matters, and several companies scrambled to provide IM gateway software or enterprise versions of their services.\r\n\r\nMicrosoft currently offers Live Communications Server to businesses for enterprise messaging and collaboration. Recently they announced future versions will allow it”s users to talk to others on AIM, MSN, and Yahoo, boosting IM interoperability. We may eventually see all instant messaging services able to communicate with one another, opening a whole new world. Enterprise systems like these also offer some tantalizing possibilities with IM bots, which could actually enhance such a system.\r\n\r\nSo while the future doesn”t have any killer app for bots out there just yet, clearly their use and research will help advance the science and some amazing technology has already demonstrated their usefulness. Although there is much debate on the subject, they will be around for a long time to come. No if, ands, or bots about it.