CHM lecture: IBM Fellow Grady Booch on Computing: The Human Experience


In this interesting and informative lecture at the Computer History Museum (CHM) on March 11, 2013, Grady Booch asked and tried to answer this question: ”What does it take to make “sentient” devices (that can feel, sense, think and reason) out of silicon and software?”

But before we can address that question, there are many others that need to be thought about. For example, what does it mean to be intelligent? Is intelligence only in the mind or can it also be computable? Some such as Marvin Minsky believe the mind to be computable; others such as Roger Penrose do not (more about him later in this article). Components of life appear to be common to many species, but sentient life is uncommon.

For a definition of “sentient” please see:

How much of a mind can we build out of silicon and software? Can we build sentient machines?

In the end, we are compelled to consider the question of what it means to be human: producing even the illusion of the mind raises profound questions as to their person hood and our relationship to intelligent machines.

History of the Mind as a Machine :

Intelligent machines have been pondered for many centuries:

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) first thought of modeling a human being as a machine.
  • Babbage tried to develop a mechanistic explanation for the mind. Was there a “divine programmer?”
  • Ada Lovelace said, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything.”
  • There are now many different types of intelligent robots made and used in Japan.
  • IBM’s Watson (natural language understanding) computer plays jeopardy better than humans

Science of the Brain:

Human brain is ~3 inches in diameter. It consumers the energy of a 100W light bulb. The brain is compose of billions of interconnected neurons which resembles “a system of systems.” It’s estimated there are 100B neurons with 100 to 500B neuron connections between them. The connections produce electrical signals and also are activated for “time triggered events.” Grady said that neurons and their connections could be simulated (some research projects aim to do that- see below).

Mental states equate with brain states. Different parts of the brain “light up” at different times and in different ways, depending on what’s being experienced. Given that, maybe there’s a mechanistic explanation of the brain, Grady suggested.

Compelling story of Artificial Intelligence (AI):

Alan Turing (1912-1954) is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. He once said that a computing machine was intelligent if it could deceive a human being into believing it was human. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke later dubbed that the “Turing Test.”
The term Artificial Intelligence was first coined at a 1956 Dartmouth conference on thinking machines. AI went through several distinct periods after that. Grady described the following phases of AI:
  • Cybernetics
  • Semantic information processing (or symbol manipulation)
  • Knowledge engineering and expert systems/ inference engines
  • Brute force methods
  • Statistical approaches
  • Societies of the mind

Other references on AI History (independent of this lecture):

IBM’s Watson:
Mr Booch showed a short video clip on the architecture of IBM’s Watson AI computer which attempted to address how it works. But that wasn’t really accomplished in the tongue and cheek dialog between Grady and Watson that was shown. Watson is an artificial intelligence computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language. It was developed in IBM’s DeepQA project by a research team led by principal investigator David Ferrucci. The machine was specifically developed to answer questions on the quiz show Jeopardy! It learns from experiences which improves its subsequent memory searches.
But Watson is now on to bigger and better things than game playing. It’s now being used as a physician’s assistant at hospitals. In February 2013, IBM announced that Watson software system’s first commercial application would be for utilization management decisions in lung cancer treatment at Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center in conjunction with health insurance company WellPoint. IBM Watson’s business chief Manoj Saxena says that 90% of nurses in the field who use Watson now follow its guidance.
Other Perspectives on Creating Sentient Machines or Devices:
A clip of Roger Penrose was quite illuminating. Penrose said that natural understanding depends on conscious thinking, which can NOT be simulated on a computer. Mr. Booch respectfully disagreed with that assertion. But he wonders how far we can go in building a sentient mind in a machine or device made from silicon and software.
We then saw a clip of a female Canadian android parsing natural language (English), feeling pain and sensing touch. Then a “Google Car” driving itself. Grady proposed “intelligent drones” that would avoid civilian buildings as targets and hence reduce collateral damage from drone strikes.
Will Intelligent Devices Make Us Dumber?
We are slowly surrendering our choices and intelligence to “sentient devices” like Siri – the personal assistant accessed via Apple’s iPhone. Outsourcing human jobs to machines has contributed to the “global economic malaise,” according to Grady. That’s because many jobs are being replaced by computing machines (e.g. switch board operators by automated computer attendants).
Research Projects to Study the Brain:
The European Commission (administration for the European Union countries) has selected research projects to study how the human brain works. Those projects may simulate brain functions.
DARPA is funding projects that will build silicon replicas of neurons. With 100B neurons and 1B x 1B bits of information that’s really BIG DATA ANALYTICS!
And the Obama administration has proposed a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.
We are on a journey to build replicas of sentient minds using silicon and software. Such sentient devices would give us the illusion of being human. Can we build such devices that dream? Maybe. Dreams could be automated and simulated.
Grady believes that sentient devices are inevitable. How then will we co-exist, evolve and live with them?
Twitter: grady@_booch