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Conference probes the brains behind ‘artificial intelligence’

July 9, 1998 By Brian Mattmiller

Sure, modern computers are capable of crunching billions of calculations per second. But can we teach them to understand everyday English, compose classical music or serve appetizers at a dinner party?

The 15th National Conference on Artificial Intelligence, set for July 26-30 at Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center, will answer those questions through a fleet of entertaining gadgets and clever technology.

Sponsored by the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), the conference will take a fun and serious look at efforts to bring quintessentially human talents to the computer, such as the ability to reason, perceive and learn. The field is following new insights on human intelligence and brain function as a starting point for building machines with minds.

Conference highlights include the Mobile Robot Competition, which will demonstrate how artificial intelligence is being used in robotics. A competition from 6 to 10 p.m. July 29 called “Hors d’oeuvres Anyone?” will have robots replace the waiters at a dinner party. A second event slated for July 30, called “Find Life on Mars,” will demonstrate advances in navigation, task planning and map creation by robots.

Other high-tech toys and exhibits will give local students and the general public a chance to participate. Visitors can try their hand at stumping a computer playing backgammon, Scrabble, poker and bridge. People can also see new artificial intelligence “pets” and games that respond to human speech. These events will take place during the “AI Festival” from 6 to 10 p.m. on July 29.

Artificial intelligence received a burst of attention last year when a computer named “Deep Blue” humbled the world’s greatest (human) chess player. But Jude Shavlik, a UW–Madison computer scientist and conference organizer, says artificial intelligence also is finding its way into practical, everyday applications.

Among the most common are software for voice and hand-writing recognition, which are able to recognize the subtleties of language with 90 percent accuracy. Other applications are helping doctors diagnose serious diseases such as breast cancer. For Internet users, researchers are creating “intelligent agents” that automatically search and retrieve on-line information, and learn the difference between good and irrelevant information.

“The goals are to get computers to recognize important features in a huge base of information, the way the eye can identify a clock in a crowded office,” he says. “Another principle is reinforcement learning, or having a computer learn from mistakes and successful turns the way mice learn to navigate a maze.”

Ironically, Shavlik says, these tasks are much tougher propositions than creating a digital chess champion. “The easier a task is for a person to do, the harder it is for a computer, and vice versa,” says Shavlik.

Computers can be programmed to anticipate virtually every conceivable chess move, he says, but have trouble recognizing something like context of language. Voice-recognition programs stumble on the difference between, say, “recognize speech” and “wreck a nice beach.”

The Madison conference will be the first time so many of the major disciplines in this field are brought together. Eight different academic societies are holding their national meetings concurrently with the artificial intelligence session. Scholars specializing in learning theory, inductive logic and genetic programming will share ideas with psychologists who are studying the biological aspects of human intelligence. These related conferences will run from July 22 to Aug. 4 in Madison.

Other presentations include “Experiments in Musical Intelligence,” which will explore attempts to have computers create new and stylistically faithful music; and a panel of science fiction writers, who will read from works that predict where the technology might lead.

A $10 daily fee is required for public access to the exhibit hall, but school or camp groups can attend for free by prior arrangement. For more information, contact Carol Hamilton with AAAI at (650) 328-3123.

Tags: research