I'm working on some materials for primary school teachers to help them teach children about computers. Can you help? I am now focusing on artificial intelligence after have some fascinating philosophical discussions with kids about whether machines can think. I wanted to summarise what is known about AI in a non-confusing way without going too deep into the raging debate about our Robot Overlords or indeed giving children nightmares. Below is my attempt at an explanation of the state of the art of AI.
- If you're a teacher, is there anything else you need to know about this topic, or anything which is not clear?
- If you're an AI researcher (or an AI or that matter), is there a key concept I have missed, or anything which is deeply misleading?
Could a computer think?
Most people would agree that the computers we use every day don’t think for themselves in the way that people do– they follow instructions which people have given them. Sometimes it seems like the computer or phone is more clever than it really is, especially if you are using a program which seems to understand what you say. Computers are good at calculating, searching huge amounts of information very quickly and accurately and sometimes making decisions based on the information. Humans are not so good at this sort of task, but we’re usually much better than computers at working out answers to new problems, being creative and understanding feelings.
Scientists and engineers who research artificial intelligence have been trying to make intelligent machines since the 1950s. Because of their work, your phone can recognise what you say to it, satellite navigation programs (“Sat Nav”) can speak directions out loud, robots (such as the Mars Rover) can navigate for themselves, and even the best human chess players can be beaten by a computer. Although these programs are impressive, they can’t do all of the many amazing things which even young children can do. Activities which we take for granted, such as walking, understanding how your friend feels or learning new languages turn out to be surprisingly hard to program into computers.
Could computers in the future think for themselves? And if they did, would they be friendly to humans, or would they want to wipe us out? Nobody really knows yet, and experts disagree about it. But it is worth thinking hard about it today because it may be possible to design intelligent computers for the future which can help us to make Planet Earth a fairer, safer and more interesting place to be.