Mind

It's...Learning! -- Nominations Please!

Science Not FictionBy Stephen CassApr 3, 2009 9:51 PM

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Over on 80 beats, my colleague Eliza Strickland points out some interesting research on an autonomous laboratory. A group of four networked computers connected to a range of lab equipment was left alone to tease out some aspects of yeast genetics. The computers came up with some hypotheses about how various genes operated, then came up with experiments to test these hypotheses out. The upshot was a number of minor, but worthwhile, advances in our knowledge of yeast biology. Teaching a computer how to learn is a perennial topic in artificial intelligence research, and one that's long been mined in science fiction. The moment when the computer demonstrates it has learned how to learn is usually a pretty significant moment in any story it's in, not least because it is one of the Laws Of Science Fiction that once a computer has started to learn, it will continue to learn at an ever accelerating rate. (A corollary of this Law states that if the computer isn't already self-aware, sentience will arise by the end of the next chapter or act at the very latest.) Interestingly, the "My God! It's learnt how to learn!" moment seems to be dwelt on by movie and TV shows (Wargames, Colossus, Terminator 3) much more than it crops up in literary science fiction. In literary science fiction, artificial intelligence is often simply presented as fait accompli. So does anyone have recommendations for a good literary treatment of the birth of an A.I.? (Frederic Brown's 1954 short-short story "Answer" is of course taken as a given classic of the genre).

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