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Snapshots from the history of AI, plus AI education resources

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In Hello World issue 12, our free magazine for computing educators, George Boukeas, DevOps Engineer for the Astro Pi Challenge here at the Foundation, introduces big moments in the history of artificial intelligence (AI) to share with your learners:

The story of artificial intelligence (AI) is a story about humans trying to understand what makes them human. Some of the episodes in this story are fascinating. These could help your learners catch a glimpse of what this field is about and, with luck, compel them to investigate further.                   

The imitation game

In 1950, Alan Turing published a philosophical essay titled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, which started with the words: “I propose to consider the question: Can machines think?” Yet Turing did not attempt to define what it means to think. Instead, he suggested a game as a proxy for answering the question: the imitation game. In modern terms, you can imagine a human interrogator chatting online with another human and a machine. If the interrogator does not successfully determine which of the other two is the human and which is the machine, then the question has been answered: this is a machine that can think.

A statue of Alan Turing on a park bench in Manchester.
The Alan Turing Memorial in Manchester

This imitation game is now a fiercely debated benchmark of artificial intelligence called the Turing test. Notice the shift in focus that Turing suggests: thinking is to be identified in terms of external behaviour, not in terms of any internal processes. Humans are still the yardstick for intelligence, but there is no requirement that a machine should think the way humans do, as long as it behaves in a way that suggests some sort of thinking to humans.

In his essay, Turing also discusses learning machines. Instead of building highly complex programs that would prescribe every aspect of a machine’s behaviour, we could build simpler programs that would prescribe mechanisms for learning, and then train the machine to learn the desired behaviour. Turing’s text provides an excellent metaphor that could be used in class to describe the essence of machine learning: “Instead of trying to produce a programme to simulate the adult mind, why not rather try to produce one which simulates the child’s? If this were then subjected to an appropriate course of education one would obtain the adult brain. We have thus divided our problem into two parts: the child-programme and the education process.”

A chess board with two pieces of each colour left.
Chess was among the games that early AI researchers like Alan Turing developed algorithms for.

It is remarkable how Turing even describes approaches that have since been evolved into established machine learning methods: evolution (genetic algorithms), punishments and rewards (reinforcement learning), randomness (Monte Carlo tree search). He even forecasts the main issue with some forms of machine learning: opacity. “An important feature of a learning machine is that its teacher will often be very largely ignorant of quite what is going on inside, although he may still be able to some extent to predict his pupil’s behaviour.”

The evolution of a definition

The term ‘artificial intelligence’ was coined in 1956, at an event called the Dartmouth workshop. It was a gathering of the field’s founders, researchers who would later have a huge impact, including John McCarthy, Claude Shannon, Marvin Minsky, Herbert Simon, Allen Newell, Arthur Samuel, Ray Solomonoff, and W.S. McCulloch.   

Go has vastly more possible moves than chess, and was thought to remain out of the reach of AI for longer than it did.

The simple and ambitious definition for artificial intelligence, included in the proposal for the workshop, is illuminating: ‘making a machine behave in ways that would be called intelligent if a human were so behaving’. These pioneers were making the assumption that ‘every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it’. This assumption turned out to be patently false and led to unrealistic expectations and forecasts. Fifty years later, McCarthy himself stated that ‘it was harder than we thought’.

Modern definitions of intelligence are of distinctly different flavour than the original one: ‘Intelligence is the quality that enables an entity to function appropriately and with foresight in its environment’ (Nilsson). Some even speak of rationality, rather than intelligence: ‘doing the right thing, given what it knows’ (Russell and Norvig).

A computer screen showing a complicated graph.
The amount of training data AI developers have access to has skyrocketed in the past decade.

Read the whole of this brief history of AI in Hello World #12

In the full article, which you can read in the free PDF copy of the issue, George looks at:

  • Early advances researchers made from the 1950s onwards while developing games algorithms, e.g. for chess.
  • The 1997 moment when Deep Blue, a purpose-built IBM computer, beating chess world champion Garry Kasparov using a search approach.
  • The 2011 moment when Watson, another IBM computer system, beating two human Jeopardy! champions using multiple techniques to answer questions posed in natural language.
  • The principles behind artificial neural networks, which have been around for decades and are now underlying many AI/machine learning breakthroughs because of the growth in computing power and availability of vast datasets for training.
  • The 2017 moment when AlphaGo, an artificial neural network–based computer program by Alphabet’s DeepMind, beating Ke Jie, the world’s top-ranked Go player at the time.
Stacks of server hardware behind metal fencing in a data centre.
Machine learning systems need vast amounts of training data, the collection and storage of which has only become technically possible in the last decade.

More on machine learning and AI education in Hello World #12

In your free PDF of Hello World issue 12, you’ll also find:

  • An interview with University of Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter, whose work shaped some of the foundations of AI, and who shares his thoughts on data science in schools and the limits of AI 
  • An introduction to Popbots, an innovative project by MIT to open AI to the youngest learners
  • An article by Ken Kahn, researcher in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, on using the block-based Snap! language to introduce your learners to natural language processing
  • Unplugged and online machine learning activities for learners age 7 to 16 in the regular ‘Lesson plans’ section
  • And lots of other relevant articles

You can also read many of these articles online on the Hello World website.

Find more resources for AI and data science education

In Hello World issue 16, the focus is on all things data science and data literacy for your learners. As always, you can download a free copy of the issue. And on our Hello World podcast, we chat with practicing computing educators about how they bring AI, AI ethics, machine learning, and data science to the young people they teach.

If you want a practical introduction to the basics of machine learning and how to use it, take our free online course.

Drawing of a machine learning ars rover trying to decide whether it is seeing an alien or a rock.

There are still many open questions about what good AI and data science education looks like for young people. To learn more, you can watch our panel discussion about the topic, and join our monthly seminar series to hear insights from computing education researchers around the world.

We are also collating a growing list of educational resources about these topics based on our research seminars, seminar participants’ recommendations, and our own work. Find the resource list here.

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