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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Agents Don't Need to be "Super Intelligent" to be Helpful

I had another great day attending tutorial sessions. The morning was Paul Cohen's excellent "Empirical Methods for Artificial Intelligence", which I believe should be required material for nearly anyone in AI - as he describes, there are big benefits (in terms of the advancement of the field) when scientific/empirical approaches are combined with theoretical ones. This statement was echoed by others I talked with today, including University of Sherbrooke's Laborius robots team who intend to use their AZIMUT-2 modular and omnidirectional robot as a platform for validating machine learning algorithms. Their AZIMUT-2 robot has some kind of funky spring mechanism in his (or her?) wheel motors which allow the robot to sense changes in the terrain, such as how we humans receive feedback about the ground when walking.

Sherbrooke's Spartacus robot is actually the only robot at this conference who is attempting the daunting task of competing in the Robot Challenge. Tomorrow morning, Spartacus will be dropped off at the entrance to the hotel, and will have to somehow take the elevator up to the correct registration floor, find the right registration desk, and after registration perform volunteer duties (in lieu of paying the conference fee) until it is time for his scheduled presentation time, at which he will present his latest work and answer questions from the audience. Not only that, but Spartacus will also interact and socialize with the other conference participants throughout. I wish him (it?) and the Sherbrooke team the best of luck!

Regarding robots, I am by no means an expert, or even remotely involved in that area myself, but I can easily envision a day when we will walk along a city street, no longer taking special notice of the additional pedestrian traffic: autonomous robots who will scurry about their daily business just as we humans do today. It shouldn't be too difficult to gain mass acceptance of these types of robots once they have been interviewed on TV, and come across as friendly, helpful, and even funny (maybe I'm going out on a limb here, but just wait 20 years and you'll see...)

In the afternoon I attended Mark T. Maybury's tutorial session on Intelligent User Interfaces. I can imagine that some of the attendees of this tutorial may have been put off by the somewhat dated video examples (for example there were a few from the ever so ancient time of 1990 to 1995), but I believe (and Dr. Maybury stated) that the differences between the concepts and ideas illustrated by those videos and the state of the art today are largely cosmetic. For example, it seemed that a huge part of Intelligent User Interfaces involves multimodal input, where a user would simultaneously gesture, look at an object, and speak, and these inputs would be synthesized and used as a basis for decision making, learning, or executing a task. This is obviously a problem that has not been solved completely today, even though over 10 years have passed since the celebration of first successes.

Dr. Maybury presented so many great ideas, some in more detail than others, but one idea which I was especially interested in (and which he generously expanded upon) is the concept of a software agent which identifies human experts within an organization by capturing and searching for keywords in the publicly available writings of the employees (e.g. if employees publish documents to a company repository, they can be considered to be fair game for keyword searching).

You might say that this system is not really that intelligent, but Maybury argued that this doesn't really matter - it can still be really helpful. (My example follows.) Let's say that company A has 2000 employees in 25 locations throughout the globe. What usually happens is that, without this new software agent system, if an employee needs to gain knowledge on a certain topic, he/she might consult the immediate social network to determine an expert, such by asking coworkers on the same floor, or perhaps someone in the same office who is a hub in the company's social network. (That's why I think that even in this day and age when telecommuting is possible, most large software firms still have (large) brick and mortar offices.) However, with a software agent that can identify experts throughout an organization regardless of location, these social networks are no longer required to find experts. (Much like how web search is reducing the need for personal referrals to small service based companies).

In the future I really don't see how large companies could afford not to employ such an expert finding system (...and maybe some already have, but are just not telling.) Dr. Maybury mentioned that his organization (MITRE) did publish a paper on this idea before any patents were filed, so there is potentially still an opportunity for some newcomers to jump in with a fancy new product to serve this purpose. He gave one commercial example of Tacit.com which attempts to build the expert database using employee email monitoring. On a side note, just imagine what kind of "expert database" Google could have of the world, if they mined their Gmail archives 10 years from now! (Not that they would ever do that of course without our consent, but what if users requested that feature?!)