Listen: Talking to Machines: LISP and the Origins of A.I.
"Garry Kasparov lost a match to the computer program program deep blue. It was a pivotal moment in machine intelligence for some it was an existential crisis a challenge to the supremacy of human intellect but for the technologists of the world this was a milestone of another kind a leap forward in the arena of artificial intelligence a sign that their dream of truly intelligent machine might not be so crazy after all a machine that can think remains the Dream News and quite a few startling breakthroughs away. How do we get to that point though what breakthroughs led up to Casper Roth's famous defeat and where did we go from there throwing it Barak and this this is command line heroes unoriginal podcast from red hat all season long. We're exploring the mysteries of programming languages uncovering uncovering their history and their potential this episode we zoom in on artificial intelligence. What language do you use news. When you're tech has a mind of its own how are programming languages help us get to that deep blue moment and way beyond the question of what language can work best with a thinking machine is something we've been tackling for more than half a century and so our story begins way back back in the nineteen forties when the term. Ai Hadn't even been coined. We think back act the end of World War Two. There's this sense that technology was how allies won the war there was this optimism that technology could accomplish anything a whole generation believed in the power of computing and out of that generation comes the godfather of artificial intelligence John McCarthy. He's brilliant mathematician who radically shook up the way we talk to our machines. I wanted to know about the origins of his his ideas and how that paradigm shift came about. I mean for starters when McCarthy and his peers were imagining the future of intelligent machines uh-huh. What exactly did they imagine wow. That's a good question. I got talking with Colin Garvey. He's a historian in the Science Games and Technology Studies Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute here. Some of our chat so McCarthy is remarkably keble kind of reticent about proposing exactly what it's going to look like for example. He has probably his most famous program that was actually never implemented but it's kind of thought piece was the advice taker and so the advice taker was written written up in one thousand nine hundred sixty. McCarthy in a paper called programs with common sense and it starts off you think the advice taker is probably a robot that will learn and that's his intention right. It's kind of a domestic robot. It could take advice you say no. You're doing doing that wrong. You know do it this way and it'll understand what you mean helpful. It'd be helpful. The whole goal of the advice taker is to drive from his desk to the airport port basically formalized his notion of what the advice taker robot should do which is apparently drive him to the airport He formalized it in to a series of logical statements that it would need to infer about what needs to to happen in the current situation to turn the current situation into the desired situation right so he formalizes is this kind of a pseudo code we'd call it now and so this is actually where lisp originates as well and and then in the next few years lisp comes out as his implementation her his language for implementing it. McCarthy's he's Lisp language was a game changer. It would help a machine understand not only commands but a common sense logic. What McCarthy discovered was that he could write conditional expressions code that embodied rules rather than just blunt commands in fact there were a bunch of major programming breakthroughs with Lisp conditionals garbage collection recur. Shen and lots more lisp used lists for both code and data a simple change with profound effects. All this opened the gateway for an entire field that McCarthy himself dubbed artificial intelligence chills. It was a language paradigm shift imagine speaking to a machine without giving it every particular of information imagine inviting that machine to infer and reason through his list language McCarthy hope to give a kind of intelligence to the machine okay back to to my chat with Collin Garvey refined earlier attempts at writing a high level computer language interesting because that was going to be my next question was about the relationship relationship between Lisp and is so it's almost like that. I idea of what I could do that. Advice machine was the beginning winning. It sounds like off. Tell me more about that relationship between Lisbon. Ai Sure so one of the things that these early AI folks were up against against was that they're doing programming with punch cards and probably these early guys knew how to program at the level full of machine code and that's very time consuming and difficult and so you needed higher level languages that you could instruct in ways that were closer informed to human language so something like Lisp gives instructions in literally a list of and that's where the name comes from list based processing in a list of instructions that are much closer to I mean the human language in the sense that they are basically logical propositions so if you could read formal logic you can basically look ed a lisp program or any of the logic based programming languages and have a much better sense of what's happening in the code so this really helped yeah. I mean it helped us take our ideas of artificial intelligence and actually were toward them. Make them happen which makes me wonder what intelligence even means during that time periods of we go back to the fifties at that point what was intelligence how did that. How did people even define that back then because Lewis was first developed for the IBM seven four which does really just one thing at a time so it doesn't really sound very intelligent yeah. How do people think about intelligence at that time so this is of course incredibly controversial right they have very narrow concepts as far as I'm concerned from a social perspective but yeah at the time for instance the ability to perform form of behavior that would be described as intelligent is kind of the catch all definition but these guys are really mathematicians mathematicians and logisticians and computer programmers. I mean to be crass. The ability to play chess was considered indefinite sign of intelligence and of this early this early generation of people was much more willing to sidestep. This is question and say well. The philosophers have not agreed on what intelligence is but if we make a computer that complete chess. I think we can all agree. That's intelligent college. It was starting blaze anyway. Baby Steps McCarthy had a dream that machines could be intelligence people on have common common sense and essentially you could talk to them and he set about creating a program language to make that that dream a reality that became lisp and it captured certain aspects of human thought and especially logical Michael Thought and made it possible to use computers to amplify or extend those features cheers of thought so from a mathematician perspective. He was well on his way to realizing intelligent machinery"