Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the field devoted to building artificial animals (or at least artificial creatures that – in suitable contexts – appear to be animals) and, for many, artificial persons (or at least artificial creatures that – in suitable contexts – appear to be persons).[1] Such goals immediately ensure that AI is a discipline of considerable interest to many philosophers, and this has been confirmed (e.g.) by the energetic attempt, on the part of numerous philosophers, to show that these goals are in fact un/attainable. On the constructive side, many of the core formalisms and techniques used in AI come out of, and are indeed still much used and refined in, philosophy: first-order logic and its extensions; intensional logics suitable for the modeling of doxastic attitudes and deontic reasoning; inductive logic, probability theory, and probabilistic reasoning; practical reasoning and planning, and so on. In light of this, some philosophers conduct AI research and development as philosophy.

In the present entry, the history of AI is briefly recounted, proposed definitions of the field are discussed, and an overview of the field is provided. In addition, both philosophical AI (AI pursued as and out of philosophy) and philosophy of AI are discussed, via examples of both. The entry ends with some de rigueur speculative commentary regarding the future of AI.


1. The History of AI

The field of artificial intelligence (AI) officially started in 1956, launched by a small but now-famous DARPA-sponsored summer conference at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire. (The 50-year celebration of this conference, AI@50, was held in July 2006 at Dartmouth, with five of the original participants making it back.[2] What happened at this historic conference figures in the final section of this entry.) Ten thinkers attended, including John McCarthy (who was working at Dartmouth in 1956), Claude Shannon, Marvin Minsky, Arthur Samuel, Trenchard Moore (apparently the lone note-taker at the original conference), Ray Solomonoff, Oliver Selfridge, Allen Newell, and Herbert Simon. From where we stand now, into the start of the new millennium, the Dartmouth conference is memorable for many reasons, including this pair: one, the term ‘artificial intelligence’ was coined there (and has long been firmly entrenched, despite being disliked by some of the attendees, e.g., Moore); two, Newell and Simon revealed a program – Logic Theorist (LT) – agreed by the attendees (and, indeed, by nearly all those who learned of and about it soon after the conference) to be a remarkable achievement. LT was capable of proving elementary theorems in the propositional calculus.[3][4]

Though the term ‘artificial intelligence’ made its advent at the 1956 conference, certainly the field of AI, operationally defined (defined, i.e., as a field constituted by practitioners who think and act in certain ways), was in operation before 1956. For example, in a famous Mind paper of 1950, Alan Turing argues that the question “Can a machine think?” (and here Turing is talking about standard computing machines: machines capable of computing functions from the natural numbers (or pairs, triples, … thereof) to the natural numbers that a Turing machine or equivalent can handle) should be replaced with the question “Can a machine be linguistically indistinguishable from a human?.” Specifically, he proposes a test, the “Turing Test” (TT) as it’s now known. In the TT, a woman and a computer are sequestered in sealed rooms, and a human judge, in the dark as to which of the two rooms contains which contestant, asks questions by email (actually, by teletype, to use the original term) of the two. If, on the strength of returned answers, the judge can do no better than 50/50 when delivering a verdict as to which room houses which player, we say that the computer in question has passed the TT. Passing in this sense operationalizes linguistic indistinguishability. Later, we shall discuss the role that TT has played, and indeed continues to play, in attempts to define AI. At the moment, though, the point is that in his paper, Turing explicitly lays down the call for building machines that would provide an existence proof of an affirmative answer to his question. The call even includes a suggestion for how such construction should proceed. (He suggests that “child machines” be built, and that these machines could then gradually grow up on their own to learn to communicate in natural language at the level of adult humans. This suggestion has arguably been followed by Rodney Brooks and the philosopher Daniel Dennett (1994) in the Cog Project. In addition, the Spielberg/Kubrick movie A.I. is at least in part a cinematic exploration of Turing’s suggestion.[5]) The TT continues to be at the heart of AI and discussions of its foundations, as confirmed by the appearance of (Moor 2003). In fact, the TT continues to be used to define the field, as in Nilsson’s (1998) position, expressed in his textbook for the field, that AI simply is the field devoted to building an artifact able to negotiate this test. Energy supplied by the dream of engineering a computer that can pass TT, or by controversy surrounding claims that it has already been passed, is if anything stronger than ever, and the reader has only to do an internet search via the string

turing test passed

to find up-to-the-minute attempts at reaching this dream, and attempts (sometimes made by philosophers) to debunk claims that some such attempt has succeeded.

Returning to the issue of the historical record, even if one bolsters the claim that AI started at the 1956 conference by adding the proviso that ‘artificial intelligence’ refers to a nuts-and-bolts engineering pursuit (in which case Turing’s philosophical discussion, despite calls for a child machine, wouldn’t exactly count as AI per se), one must confront the fact that Turing, and indeed many predecessors, did attempt to build intelligent artifacts. In Turing’s case, such building was surprisingly well-understood before the advent of programmable computers: Turing wrote a program for playing chess before there were computers to run such programs on, by slavishly following the code himself. He did this well before 1950, and long before Newell (1973) gave thought in print to the possibility of a sustained, serious attempt at building a good chess-playing computer.[6]

From the perspective of philosophy, which views the systematic investigation of mechanical intelligence as meaningful and productive separate from the specific logicist formalisms (e.g., first-order logic) and problems (e.g., the Entscheidungsproblem) that gave birth to computer science, neither the 1956 conference, nor Turing’s Mind paper, come close to marking the start of AI. This is easy enough to see. For example, Descartes proposed TT (not the TT by name, of course) long before Turing was born.[7] Here’s the relevant passage:

If there were machines which bore a resemblance to our body and imitated our actions as far as it was morally possible to do so, we should always have two very certain tests by which to recognise that, for all that, they were not real men. The first is, that they could never use speech or other signs as we do when placing our thoughts on record for the benefit of others. For we can easily understand a machine’s being constituted so that it can utter words, and even emit some responses to action on it of a corporeal kind, which brings about a change in its organs; for instance, if it is touched in a particular part it may ask what we wish to say to it; if in another part it may exclaim that it is being hurt, and so on. But it never happens that it arranges its speech in various ways, in order to reply appropriately to everything that may be said in its presence, as even the lowest type of man can do. And the second difference is, that although machines can perform certain things as well as or perhaps better than any of us can do, they infallibly fall short in others, by which means we may discover that they did not act from knowledge, but only for the disposition of their organs. For while reason is a universal instrument which can serve for all contingencies, these organs have need of some special adaptation for every particular action. From this it follows that it is morally impossible that there should be sufficient diversity in any machine to allow it to act in all the events of life in the same way as our reason causes us to act. (Descartes 1637, p. 116)

At the moment, Descartes is certainly carrying the day.[8] Turing predicted that his test would be passed by 2000, but the fireworks across the globe at the start of the new millennium have long since died down, and the most articulate of computers still can’t meaningfully debate a sharp toddler. Moreover, while in certain focussed areas machines out-perform minds (IBM’s famous Deep Blue prevailed in chess over Gary Kasparov, e.g.; and more recently, AI systems have prevailed in other games, e.g. Jeopardy! and Go, about which more will momentarily be said), minds have a (Cartesian) capacity for cultivating their expertise in virtually any sphere. (If it were announced to Deep Blue, or any current successor, that chess was no longer to be the game of choice, but rather a heretofore unplayed variant of chess, the machine would be trounced by human children of average intelligence having no chess expertise.) AI simply hasn’t managed to create general intelligence; it hasn’t even managed to produce an artifact indicating that eventually it will create such a thing.

But what about IBM Watson’s famous nail-biting victory in the Jeopardy! game-show contest?[9] That certainly seems to be a machine triumph over humans on their “home field,” since Jeopardy! delivers a human-level linguistic challenge ranging across many domains. Indeed, among many AI cognoscenti, Watson’s success is considered to be much more impressive than Deep Blue’s, for numerous reasons. One reason is that while chess is generally considered to be well-understood from the formal-computational perspective (after all, it’s well-known that there exists a perfect strategy for playing chess), in open-domain question-answering (QA), as in any significant natural-language processing task, there is no consensus as to what problem, formally speaking, one is trying to solve. Briefly, question-answering (QA) is what the reader would think it is: one asks a question of a machine, and gets an answer, where the answer has to be produced via some “significant” computational process. (See Strzalkowski & Harabagiu (2006) for an overview of what QA, historically, has been as a field.) A bit more precisely, there is no agreement as to what underlying function, formally speaking, question-answering capability computes. This lack of agreement stems quite naturally from the fact that there is of course no consensus as to what natural languages are, formally speaking.[10] Despite this murkiness, and in the face of an almost universal belief that open-domain question-answering would remain unsolved for a decade or more, Watson decisively beat the two top human Jeopardy! champions on the planet. During the contest, Watson had to answer questions that required not only command of simple factoids (Question1), but also of some amount of rudimentary reasoning (in the form of temporal reasoning) and commonsense (Question2):

Question1: The only two consecutive U.S. presidents with the same first name.

Question2: In May 1898, Portugal celebrated the 400th anniversary of this explorer’s arrival in India.

While Watson is demonstrably better than humans in Jeopardy!-style quizzing (a new human Jeopardy! master could arrive on the scene, but as for chess, AI now assumes that a second round of IBM-level investment would vanquish the new human opponent), this approach does not work for the kind of NLP challenge that Descartes described; that is, Watson can’t converse on the fly. After all, some questions don’t hinge on sophisticated information retrieval and machine learning over pre-existing data, but rather on intricate reasoning right on the spot. Such questions may for instance involve anaphora resolution, which require even deeper degrees of commonsensical understanding of time, space, history, folk psychology, and so on. Levesque (2013) has catalogued some alarmingly simple questions which fall in this category. (Marcus, 2013, gives an account of Levesque’s challenges that is accessible to a wider audience.) The other class of question-answering tasks on which Watson fails can be characterized as dynamic question-answering. These are questions for which answers may not be recorded in textual form anywhere at the time of questioning, or for which answers are dependent on factors that change with time. Two questions that fall in this category are given below (Govindarajulu et al. 2013):

Question3: If I have 4 foos and 5 bars, and if foos are not the same as bars, how many foos will I have if I get 3 bazes which just happen to be foos?

Question4: What was IBM’s Sharpe ratio in the last 60 days of trading?

Closely following Watson’s victory, in March 2016, Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeated one of Go’s top-ranked players, Lee Seedol, in four out of five matches. This was considered a landmark achievement within AI, as it was widely believed in the AI community that computer victory in Go was at least a few decades away, partly due to the enormous number of valid sequences of moves in Go compared to that in Chess.[11] While this is a remarkable achievement, it should be noted that, despite breathless coverage in the popular press,[12] AlphaGo, while indisputably a great Go player, is just that. For example, neither AlphaGo nor Watson can understand the rules of Go written in plain-and-simple English and produce a computer program that can play the game. It’s interesting that there is one endeavor in AI that tackles a narrow version of this very problem: In general game playing, a machine is given a description of a brand new game just before it has to play the game (Genesereth et al. 2005). However, the description in question is expressed in a formal language, and the machine has to manage to play the game from this description. Note that this is still far from understanding even a simple description of a game in English well enough to play it.

But what if we consider the history of AI not from the perspective of philosophy, but rather from the perspective of the field with which, today, it is most closely connected? The reference here is to computer science. From this perspective, does AI run back to well before Turing? Interestingly enough, the results are the same: we find that AI runs deep into the past, and has always had philosophy in its veins. This is true for the simple reason that computer science grew out of logic and probability theory,[13] which in turn grew out of (and is still intertwined with) philosophy. Computer science, today, is shot through and through with logic; the two fields cannot be separated. This phenomenon has become an object of study unto itself (Halpern et al. 2001). The situation is no different when we are talking not about traditional logic, but rather about probabilistic formalisms, also a significant component of modern-day AI: These formalisms also grew out of philosophy, as nicely chronicled, in part, by Glymour (1992). For example, in the one mind of Pascal was born a method of rigorously calculating probabilities, conditional probability (which plays a particularly large role in AI, currently), and such fertile philosophico-probabilistic arguments as Pascal’s wager, according to which it is irrational not to become a Christian.

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