Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The quest for artificial intelligence

Posted by Danny Tarlow
Nils Nilsson is a Professor Emeritus in Computer Science at Stanford. Anybody who has taken a course on algorithms knows about A* search -- Nils co-invented it. He was also instrumental in developing one of the earliest mobile robots, SHAKEY, back in 1966. It's pretty amazing to look at the old pictures and read about the project.
From http://www.ai.sri.com/shakey/


If you're looking for somebody who lived through and helped shape modern robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better exemplar than Nils.

He's also an extremely friendly and interesting guy. I know because I spent the summer after my third year of undergrad as one of his two research assistants. We were looking at how to do unsupervised learning in an incremental way, so that we could use what we'd already learned to build up progressively richer and more meaningful representations of the world, but that's a story for another day.

While I was working with him -- which was about four years ago now -- Nils told me about a book project he was working on, trying to round up information and write a history of artificial intelligence and robotics. I learned today that he's finished the book, which is set to be published later in the year. The best part is that the book is available free online in the meantime:

THE QUEST FOR ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: A HISTORY OF IDEAS AND ACHIEVEMENTS
Nils Nilsson
http://ai.stanford.edu/~nilsson/QAI/qai-webpage.html
I haven't sunk my teeth into it, but I skimmed through most of the chapters. It looks to be a great read -- Nils has always seemed to be conscious of the big picture, and I think it shows in this book. Chapter 1 starts by chronicling dreams of artificial intelligence in ancient literature. It's a great way to start the book. It is also very comprehensive, weighing it at 700 pages. I'll likely be buying a hard copy when it hits the presses.

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