The innovation of the programmable digital computer was birthed in the 1940s out of a necessity to “think” faster and solve complex problems. However, it is the human mind that initially built the firmware and software to enable the machines to perform feats of intelligence normally reserved for the limited number of geniuses and savants on the planet. A threshold was crossed when software was designed that replaced human intelligence in terms of decision making supported by speech and visual recognition, a machine that acted through its own sense perceptions. Artificial Intelligence or AI entered the world of the living.
The question foremost in the minds of computer scientists everywhere was, “Can machines think?” Unlike 3D Scanning and printing where a program is designed as an application to reproduce a set of instructions, AI is using stored data to think through a problem. A flow of logic is applied to deliver a reasonable solution – an end result based on the principle of reasoning.
You may be surprised to learn that references of artificial intelligence can be found in the scrolls of ancient Greek mythology. The blacksmith Hephaestus, drawn from Greek myths made the equivalent of robots and other mechanical toys resembling human-like beings. Later in history’s timeline it’s known that Aristotle invented syllogistic logic – the first formal deductive reasoning system.
It seems that artificial intelligence has fascinated man for a very long time. Talking heads were introduced in Europe in the thirteenth century. Needless to say, they were met with horror and as an abomination rather than a curiosity or scientific advancement. Albertus Magnus, a philosopher of the day, is reported to have manufactured a head that could talk.
The reception was less than warm, and one of his students, a fellow known today as St. Thomas Aquinas destroyed it as demonic and ungodly. It’s difficult even in the 21st century for some to accept the idea of speaking face to face with a non-human form of intelligence. It is not too broad of a leap to imagine how freaked-out this must have been to the lay person of the thirteenth century.
However, science is not easily deterred, and as the centuries rolled by, so did the curiosity of inventing more sophisticated forms of talking heads. The pursuit of perfecting the vocalization was taken on by several scientists. In 1770 a talking machine was presented at the court of the Emperor of Austria by Fredrick van Knaus. Not many years later in 1779 Kratzenstein’s resonators were invented for the synthesis of vowel sounds.
More sophistication made the outward appearance of AI more human-like. Wolfgang Von Kempelen’s talking machine of 1791 was the first to link words and utterances together to make a more cohesive communication form. It was later refined by his colleague Charles Wheatstone , the Brit who is credited with the invention of the telegraph system.
The history of AI cannot be told without mention of Alexander and Melville Graham Bell. Alexander and his brother devised a physical working model of the human vocal tract in the late 1800s mimicking their father’s elocution style. As a young boy growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, Alexander had the opportunity to see Kempelen’s talking head. This stirred his genius and with the support of family members he went to to introduce a speaking automation of his own.
This brief history only brings us to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It only brushed the tip of the iceberg of artificial intelligence as we know it in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Like most things remarkable there is much more than meets the eye or a single page of a blogger’s report.
Artificial intelligence began its more recognizable life in earnest during the mid 1950s at a conference held at Dartmouth College. Absent of the prejudices of religion, three scientists, Allen Newell, J.C. Shaw and Herbert A. Simon, introduced the Logic Theory Machine and the General Problem Solver. The Logic Theory Machine was the first program “deliberately engineered to mimic the problem solving skills of a human being”. The Logic Theory Machine is considered the first AI program.
In my next article I’ll discuss the Logic Theory Machine in more detail. The subject of artificial intelligence is vast, fascinating and unending. Despite it dating back to antiquity, our quest to create life with machines leading the charge, is still in its infancy.