Researchers Push for Computers That Think

Remember Stanley Kubrick's epic 2001: A Space Odyssey? More specifically, remember the malevolent supercomputer HAL 9000?

It may still be decades before computers become "self-aware" and smart enough to do something evil on their own, like turn against humans. But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is hoping that renewed research and funding could within the next few years lead to machines that act more like human assistants.

For years, DARPA has funded research into so-called artificial intelligence systems — computers that approach tasks using advanced software and schemes that mimic how humans solve problems. But under a new, five-year project called Perceptive Assistant that Learns, or PAL, researchers are hoping to take "cognitive systems" to a new level.

The goal of the project is to develop a computer system that would help decision-makers — business managers and battlefield commanders, for instance — automatically manage the flood of daily mundane chores and allow them to concentrate on more important tasks.

Just like human administrative assistants, these developing "cognitive systems" would answer e-mail, arrange meetings, and write reports. But in handling these routine tasks, the computer would remain alert for information and events that are vital to its human manager's chores.

An Astute RADAR

One team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is tackling the PAL program challenge with a project called Reflective Agents with Distributed Adaptive Reasoning — RADAR. The project, funded for the initial year with $7 million from DARPA, brings together several "expert systems" that have been developed over the years for very specific purposes.

For example, voice recognition systems used in automated call centers to give information about credit cards or bank accounts use specially developed software that helps a computer understand a very limited number of spoken commands and phrases.

But researchers at the university hope that further study and development of these types of specific expert systems will lead to a common approach and methodology. By working from a common "base" of knowledge and structure, different parts of RADAR will know, or learn, how to interact with others.

According to Scott Fuhlman, one of the computer scientists working on the CMU project, the RADAR component that handles e-mail could be taught how to handle certain e-mails, looking for key phrases like "meeting" and times associated with them. When it finds such messages, it would then alert the RADAR piece that handles the person's scheduling, which in turn may directly interact with the e-mail sender's agent to determine a mutually agreeable meeting time.

"Everything I've described has a simple version that people have worked on and used in isolation in the past," says Fuhlman. "But by pulling them all together, we can create a new capability."

A Soldier’s Servant

SRI International, a nonprofit research organization in Menlo Park, Calif., is also tackling DARPA's PAL program with its own project called Cognitive Agent that Learns and Observes, or CALO.

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