THE FIFTH GENERATION
Some computer prophets say that the age of the thinking machine is near. They see a world in which machines could be gods of information. John Gilbert investigates the claims.
ARTIFICIAL Intelligence, AI, has become one of the most facinating areas of interest to the computer fraternity.
An underlying interest in the production of 'intelligent' machines has always been evident in the computer world but it has not been until the last six months or so that the subject has caught the headlines in computer magazines and books. The reason for that is the difficulty in writing about a subject which has evolved no terms of reference at a simple level.
One of the books which has tried to do just that, and failed to some extent, is The Fifth Generation, by Edward Fiegenbaum and Pamela McCorduck. The attitude of the American authors shows that they have no doubt that fifth generation artificial intelligence within a machine environment is possible. We are currently in the middle of the third generation of microcomputers, which involves integrated circuits. The first and second generations have evolved from gas heated valves and transistor technology. The fourth uses very large scale integrations, VLSI, and fifth generation will show dramatic leaps not only in hardware but in software.
The authors state that artificially intelligent machines will be able to manipulate information and come to conclusions, or reason, on the basis of that data. Unfortunately, their idea of AI seems to be confined to a machine which can amass huge amounts of data, using enormous memory banks, and offer that information to another user in any format required. Many expert systems can do that already and they would in no way be termed intelligent.
Unfortunately, the concept of consciousness, though touched on briefly, is not dealt with in anything approaching enough depth. Some readers will, as a result, feel that the authors have not produced an adequate formulation of the different definitions of AI and have only put across their own views which, they seem to think, are unchallengeable.
Once the problems of terms of reference have been established and cleared the authors then launch into a look at the Japanese innovations in software and hardware techniques. They see information as the next great commodity on the world market and explain that the Japanese with their KIPS, Knowledge Information Processing Systems, are on the way to becoming the next great superpower which could have domination over the USA and USSR, at least in economic terms.
The fifth generation of computers, unlike the last four, will be one in which software, and not hardware, is most important. Feigenbaum says that 'significant levels of innovation' in software techniques will have to be achieved before the fifth generation can be implemented. He then goes on to say that the Japanese are close to such breakthroughs and that they will have a dangerous monopoly on such new techniques unless other countries, for example the United States, do something to safeguard their interests. Such a viewpoint is slightly naive and shows the authors to be suffering from a highly developed sense of information paranoia.
Feigenbaum does, however, redeem himself by admitting that the Japanese need a lead in the new information revolution. He comments that 'Japan's survival as a nation is at stake' unless new quantum leaps in technology are made by that country. What he does not overtly say, however, is that his pessimistic viewpoint about the American lack of interest in the subject is fuelled by the fear that what could happen to the Japanese if they fail could also happen to the United States.
The Fifth Generation, despite its technofear style, is an interesting and digestible book which will appeal to computer historians and prophets alike.
Sir Clive Sinclair thinks that it is 'essential reading for anyone concerned with computers' and what greater endorsement could you get than that?
On a more practical note Exploring Artificial Intelligence on Your Microcomputer by Tim Hartnell investigates the traditional idea of artificial intelligence.
Unfortunately the book might have been better titled 'How to write strategy games or programs which will talk back to you'.
Hartnell's overview of the field of artificial intelligence is informed and concise. It does not side-step the issue but equally it does not go to much trouble to evaluate the terms of reference that were mentioned earlier. To be fair the book is not just another tome of listings. The examples are broken down so that the reader gets a few lines at a time together with a paragraph of explanation. Many of the listings are then reproduced as a whole, although it is not clear if that is to help the reader or whether it is just to fill space.
All the programs use conventional programming techniques and if The Fifth Generation terms of reference were used the book could not be described as a text about artificial intelligence.
To be fair, the author does deal with the subject of Syllogy, an area which figures greatly in the AI debate along with information processing. The area covers forms of deductive reasoning in the style 'if a and b are true then c is also true'. Computers can deal with such relational arguments and can also make the connections between relationships. Hartnell includes a program to show how it is done.
Although Exploring Artificial Intelligence is more a book for those casually interested in the thinking machine it provides a view of the subject which should appeal to many people who want to improve their programming skills. It takes the reader to an advanced level but, because of the limitations of Basic, does not even touch the realm of what would now be termed artificial intelligence.
The same can be said of Artificial Intelligence on the Spectrum Computer, by Keith and Steven Brain. The book contains little information that could not be acquired from good texts on adventure gaming or data processing.
Subjects such as entering English sentences and getting sensible replies from the computer are covered together with short examples which are not particularly imaginative. One good point about the book is that program listings are backed up with flowcharts which detail the techniques which have been used to create the revolutionary new program. That will better enable the reader to adapt techniques to specific programming needs rather than have to wade through the programs.
The authors have, like Hartnell, taken a simplistic view of AI. They see it as a method of communicating with computers and in turn receiving a coherent reply. They also touch on matters such as recognising shapes but make no attempt to distinguish the real points of issue in that area of AI.
The chapter on shape recognition deals only with input from the keyboard and not with senses such as touch, sight, and sound recognition. All those areas are under investigation by computer scientists but none of them are mentioned in detail by the Brains.
If other Sunshine books can include information about setting up hardware for simplified sensor devices then surely the Brains' book could make at least some effort to look at the subject in depth without shying away with a few examples which are old hat to most programmers.
Build Your Own Expert System by Chris Naylor on the other hand, is a welcome relief from the simplistic views of AI given by some authors when dealing with the subject.
The book is about building relational databases which can be questioned in order to obtain specific information.
Naylor introduces the random element which occurs in the thought processes of most human beings and which probes for new areas of knowledge. For instance, the author gives an example of a database which will predict what the weather will be like the day after the prediction was made. If it is rainy today and has been raining all week, the chances are that it will rain tomorrow. With that supposition and a knowledge of cloud formations the computer might predict that it will continue to rain tomorrow. If the prediction is wrong the method used by the machine will be adjusted. That might be by providing better knowledge of weather movements or lengthening the odds of certain weather patterns occuring. It is a hit and miss business but it is a better display of AI than any of the books reviewed earlier could muster.
Naylor's book is a must for computer users clamouring for more information about AI or wanting to do something useful with their Spectrums. It is one of the few books worth reading on the subject and, with Naylor's unpretentious skill as a writer, it is certainly one of the most readable.
The Fifth Generation, Pan Books, £2.95
Exploring Artificial intelligence on Your Microcomputer, Interface Publications, £4.95
Artificial Intelligence on the Spectrum, Sunshine Books, £6.95.
Build Your Own Expert System , Sigma Technical Press.