Lighthill on AI, and some questions that remain open!

As an AI researcher, and a faculty member at Edinburgh where some of the most interesting episodes in the history of AI were enacted, I find the Lighthill report to be quite fascinating and I have occasionally come back to reading it when thinking about the big questions.

One interesting point is that many of the things he criticised so strongly, e.g., machine translation, have turned out to be the areas where in subsequent decades AI has made the most progress. Some of his other critiques, such as his scepticism about data-driven approaches (spoken like the applied mathematician he was), have turned out exactly the other way – as hallmarks of a methodology that has come to define our age.

There is one observation, however, that he rightly makes, that continues to remain a blind spot for the research community:

We must remember, rather, that the intelligent problem solving and eye-hand co-ordination and scene analysis capabilities that are much studied in category B represent only a small part of the features of the human CNS that give the human race its uniqueness. It is a truism that human beings who are very strong intellectually but weak in emotional drives and emotional relationships are singularly ineffective in the world at large. Valuable results flow from the integration of intellectual ability with the capacity to feel and to relate to other people; until this integration happens problem solving is no good because there is no way of seeing which are the right problems. These remarks have been included to make clear that the over-optimistic category-B-centred view of AI not only fails to take the first fence but ignores the rest of the steeplechase altogether.

He is right, and we still don’t pay nearly enough attention to this. Perhaps it is time, especially given the remarkable new opportunities created by new advances in allied areas ranging from experimental neurosciences to cognitive psychology?

Workshop on Bounded Rationality

I am co-organising, with Alan Bundy and Rahul Santhanam, a workshop on Bounded Rationality: Computational and Behavioural Aspects, to be held on 4th and 5th April in the School of Informatics.

More details here:

This meeting is explicitly intended to bring together researchers from multiple disciplines. We have talks from people in computer science, economics, psychology and geosciences. Come join us!

Ockham’s razor in different fields

Someone participating in an ongoing exchange within a public newsgroup made the following observation which I believe is very pertinent to areas I work in as well:

Ockham’s razor was a terrible heuristic for planetary science for about 1500 years, not with respect to replicating the position of the planets in the night sky (big data ‘prediction’ problem as it would currently be called now) but instead as a model to actually understand planetary motion, which became the foundation for mechanics and modern physics.

It would perhaps be considered unfashionable to knock Ockham in today’s age of data-driven science, but I think that reaction only arises from an underestimation of how valuable a good theory is. Throughout graduate school I was just in awe of concepts like the variational formulation of mechanics which were not only the very foundations of physics but also slowly crept under to provide the foundation for the most efficient methods for data-driven inference in graphical models and so on! It would be a real shame if researchers interested in intelligence, be it AI or neuroscience, gave up on the search for these principles…

Hype Cycles 2013

I came across this in my twitter feed today, and find it really interesting. Gartner, Inc., a leading research and advisory company, routinely put together a report evaluating the relative readiness and ‘hype level’ of various technologies. The 2013 report includes the following nice visualisation.


As is perhaps the case for most academic researchers, many of the things I am working on fall in the innovation trigger category, inching into the peak of inflated expectations. It is worth keeping in mind the cautionary note that this only means we are a few years from the ‘trough of disillusionment’ – so, unless we have things to show by then, the reception could be rather cold!

How do cancer cells behave in space?

This was the topic of my recent post in the Research the Headlines blog.

The core question is an intriguing one: does a trip to space hold the secret to curing cancer? The point of commentary articles in this blog, in case you have not seen the blog before, is to discuss the underlying scientific concept in relatively non-technical terms but also to briefly consider how this topic has been treated by the media articles covering it.