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Falling prey to machines

ANN ARBOR, Mich (Feb. 10, 2003)--It's coming, but when? From Garry Kasparov to Michael Crichton, both fact and fiction are converging on a showdown between man and machine. But what does a leading artificial intelligence expert--the world's first computer science PhD--think about the future of machine intelligence? Will computers ever gain consciousness and take over the world?

"Computer sentience is possible," said John Holland, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. "But for a number of reasons, I don't believe that we are anywhere near that stage right now."

In the 1960s, Holland created the field of genetic algorithms, a process in which computers solve problems by mimicking biological evolution. By adapting concepts of natural selection and sexual reproduction to computer programming, Holland showed that computers could "evolve" their programming to solve complex problems in ways that even their creators did not fully understand.

Researchers have since then been able to use genetic algorithms to "breed" optimal solutions for things like managing energy distribution systems or designing ultra-efficient aircraft engines. Genetic algorithms also provide the basis for much of Michael Crichton's best-selling novel Prey, in which nano-sized machines evolve into an intelligent, life-threatening swarm. Holland's research and that of several of his students is cited as source material for the book.

But evolving solutions for well-defined optimization problems is distinctly different than synthesizing something as opened-ended as consciousness or freewill.

According to Holland, the problem with developing artificial intelligence through things like genetic algorithms is that researchers don't yet understand how to define what computer programs should be evolving toward. Human beings did not evolve to be intelligent--they evolved to survive. Intelligence w
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Contact: Neal Lao
njlao@umich.edu
734-647-7087
University of Michigan College of Engineering
11-Feb-2003


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