Session 21

Computer Systems in the Future


Environment, Technology, and Society

Exercise: The Effect of Broadening What Computers (Can) Do


  1. To consider what computers could -- and should not -- do in the future.
  2. To consider the effect that computers could have in the future by doing things that people do today.


Work in teams of three or four people based on the number in the upper right hand corner of this page.

Consider these things that a computer system of the future might do:

Use this list to guide your work on Tasks 1-4.

  1. Which of these tasks do you imagine would be the easiest to implement in a computer system? The hardest?

  2. Which of these do you think would be most beneficial to humankind if a computer system could do it? The least beneficial?

  3. Select five of these items. For each, identify an important question that such a system raises for a society in which it is reality. Your question should relate to a legal, economic, or social issue involving the system.

  4. Give your group's best guess at an answer to each of your five questions from the previous task. Try not to make the answer just your opinion, but something grounded in the real world.

  5. Suppose that we have implemented a computer system capable of diagnosing everyday ailments without assistance from a human doctor.

    How should this system interact with human clients (users)?

    Would you be comfortable using such a system? Why (not)?

  6. Is there anything that we should not let computers do?

Be sure to give the *why* behind each of your answers!


Submit your group's answers to the discussion questions.

We will clarify any questions that you run into during the exercise.

Summary of Exercise

Building computer systems capable of doing these kinds of tasks is one of the goals of artificial intelligence, an area in computer science that interacts with disciplines such as cognitive psycology, linguistics, philosophy, and engineering. Our goal here is not to study AI in depth but rather to consider it from the perspective of a society in which AI systems might play a role. What are the implications for people? What are the implications for society as a whole?

A couple of years ago, AI of a sort reached the mass media when IBM's Deep Blue, a special-purpose chess playing computer, played two matches with world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Deep Blue won the second match and created a firestorm of questions about whether humans had been surpassed in the intellectual arena by a machine. What do you think?

Defining AI is difficult, because we aren't sure what we mean by "intelligence" when we talk about humans, let alone machines. Marvin Minsky, one of the founders of AI, defines AI as "making computers do what humans are good at". Others say, "programming a computer to do something that, if done by a human, we would consider intelligent". (Notice the subtle difference in these definitions.) Finally, the most tongue-in-cheek definition I've ever seen is, "if we can do it, then it's not AI". Kind of tough to make progress as a researcher in a world with such a mindset.

Here is my favorite "technical" definition: AI is the study of the computations that make it possible to perceive, reason, and act in a complex environment.

How does AI differ from psychology? Philosophy? The rest of CS? It shares with all three questions of interest and methods for seeking answers to these questions. But it is different from each.

What kinds of problems does AI study? Given the breadth of definitions, you should not be surprised to find that the problems we study come from a wide spectrum. The items in the exercise today give a pretty good sampling. Studying formal systems such as mathematics and game playing was more dominant early on in AI, but now researchers tend to focus on more realistic tasks. (In many ways the formal tasks are too easy--because they are formally defined!)

What does an AI scientist do?

The key question I ask you to think about for this course is: How would "intelligent" computer systems affect the way we interact with the world? With each other?

Keep in mind, too, that what AI seeks to do may seem magical today, but today's "common" software would have looked like to magic to people in 1955, 1965, 1975, 1985--maybe even 1995!

Students Summaries

Eugene Wallingford ==== ==== November 17, 2003