Wily Algorithms: What Artificial Intelligence Is Up To

Image by Brian Duffy

You knew the cake was a lie. You didn’t trust GLaDOS from the moment she lined up her minions to kill you. And as the powerful AI antagonist of Portal, she had a lot of minions. So, how close are we in real life to animate, scheming artificial intelligences?

The Ava robot resulted from a partnership between iRobot (robotics) and Cisco (telepresence technology). They advertise the model as a way to bring offsite employees into their full collaborative potential through “more natural human interaction.” As an offsite employee, the Ava robot represents you seated, standing, or walking during presentations and hallway sidebars—all with your face plastered on its monitor, allowing facial expression and body language to be conveyed while you work remotely. In order to avoid obstacles (people, walls, and so on), the Ava robot assesses the floor plan of buildings; to best represent you in spontaneous discussion, the Ava robot learns how to stalk people down corridors. Possibly Ava’s next upgrade would be toward the P-body and Atlas suits from Portal 2.

And what about flying personality cores? A research group at MIT has a laser-guided robot plane with a two-metre wingspan able to skirt obstacles and plot its own course without external processors. The flying robot uses a sequence of two-dimensional scans of an area plus information from its inertial measurement unit to make three-dimensional pictures for flight planning and obstacle avoidance. It moves up to 10 metres per second (22 miles per hour) through confined spaces, some only half a metre larger than itself. I wouldn’t want to be jumping through portals while avoiding autonomous planes.

But while the plane’s brain has to be pretty smart — or chock full of wily algorithms — it isn’t on par with GLaDOS. Recent AI research shows that adding extra processing power in the form of graphical processing units (GPUs)—the cards in your PC that make WoW graphics so smooth—allows computer clusters to teach themselves how to identify human faces and, most important, cats. While the computer cluster includes fewer nodes than the human brain, scientists consider this recognition a breakthrough because it occurs with just three machines, all of which are high-end but none of which are prohibitively expensive.

So, cats, look out. At least it will take GLaDOS a while to rework the portal gun for paws. And, being finicky eaters, you’re unlikely to fall for the cake.

//Image by Brian Duffy used under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license, via Flickr.


Writer. Word-monger. Alliterative architect. Science storyteller. Past lives include: planetary scientist, software dev manager. Home base: http://www.pantoum.org.