The University of Southampton

Artificial Intelligence under the spotlight at BA Festival

Published: 10 September 2007

Although Hollywood often likes to present us with a world full of self-aware and destructive robots in the style of I Robot, this is not the way the science of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is headed, says British Computer Society President and ECS Professor of Artificial Intelligence Nigel Shadbolt.

Speaking at the BA Festival of Science in York tomorrow (Tuesday 11 September), Professor Shadbolt will outline how developments in the speed and power of computers, the emergence of the World Wide Web, and our deeper understanding of human and animal intelligence is producing a different but no less exciting future.

‘AI has had a huge influence on the past and present of computer science – it will be a large part of the future but not in the way you might think,’ says Professor Shadbolt, an AI expert in the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton.

‘Computers are now one million times more powerful than when I started my research career – no field has come close to this rate of development,’ he says. ‘If transport had progressed at the same rate we would be flying from London to New York in less than a tenth of second.’

Professor Shadbolt instances the immensely powerful computing systems that can beat the world’s best chess players, translate documents on the Web from one language to another, and build robots that hoover the house, but points out that ‘these systems are not agonising about their existence or whether we are about to switch them off’.

He believes that we are now seeing the emergence of Assistive Intelligence which can be characterized as a different kind of AI. ‘These results can be seen everywhere,’ he says. ‘Rather than being conscious brains in a box, as Hollywood would have it, they are in fact small pieces of adaptive and flexible software that help drive our cars, diagnose disease and provide opponents in computer games.’

And he sees this as a trend that will continue. ‘There will be micro-intelligences all around us – systems that are very good and adaptive at particular tasks, and we will be immersed in environments stuffed full of helpful devices.’

Professor Shadbolt thinks that we will also see this happen in the Web and has been researching the next generation Web with Professor Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s inventor, and a co-director with him of the Web Science Research Initiative.

‘What is emerging now is a digital ecosystem,’ says Professor Shadbolt, ‘involving lots of simple systems which connect millions of complex ones – humans!

‘And when you have millions of people using smart software you start to see really interesting properties – forms of Collective Intelligence, such as Wikipedia, which is the communal expression of a great deal of our encyclopaedic knowledge. The Web will be smart because it will have assistive intelligence connecting human intelligence together.’

But, concludes Professor Shadbolt: ‘You don’t need to worry about the robot next door deciding to make a bid for world domination!’

Professor Shadbolt will present these ideas with a range of examples in his lecture, to be given as part of the British Association Festival of Science in York, at 6 pm, Bedern Hall, Bartle Garth, York, on Tuesday 11 September.

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