By @SimonCocking

Fascinating interview with Ken Ford, a leading robotics expert at Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition working on the development of some seriously forward performing robots. We were fortunate to have Ken come over to UCC for the 200th anniversary George Boole celebrations.

How do you find Cork?

It’s a lovely place. I was in Cork to take part in the celebration of the 200th anniversary of George Boole. It was a wonderful event celebrating a great man.

With it being the 200th anniversary of G Boole, do you think he would have been surprise by how far we have come or how little we have come?


I imagine that he would be very surprised by how far the technology has advanced and saddened by some of its application.

For the future what trends are you excited by in AI?

Rather than intelligent computers becoming our rivals or doing our thinking for us as some pundits imagine … they will (and have already) become our amplifiers and teammates.

What possible risks do we face, and how do you suggest we manage them?

New technologies always bring both promise and peril.  AI is not unique here.  Society will have hard choices to make about how we use the greatly increased intelligence available to us. One can imagine wonderfully optimistic futures and some dystopian futures as well.  We will choose.

Robots could replace many jobs. However many have suggested that this could lead to enabling humans to have more time to spend on more creative work – what is your opinion on this?

Certainly this view seems possible.   New technologies typically destroy entire categories of jobs while creating others.   Most of today’s jobs did not exist even one generation ago.  I can imagine that “jobs” as we know them will largely disappear but certainly “work” will continue even as it is transformed by technology and societal changes.

Is it possible that some other system rather than the one that evolved from Boolean logic could have evolved?

Perhaps, but our current model of computing is tightly coupled to Boole’s two-valued logic.

How do you manage all your different interests? And are there occasions when one helps and feeds into the other?

I don’t manage my interests … in fact sometimes they seem to manage me.  I think one benefits from having broad and deep interests. To quote Robert Heinlein, “Specialization is for insects.”

Ray Kurzweil predicts we’ll reach the singularity in 20 years or less, you expressed the opinion why you thought not – why do you think otherwise?

I do not recall mentioning Ray Kurzweil, but he is certainly an interesting fellow.  Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity Is Near, offers a radically optimistic view of the future of human civilization enabled by our rapidly accelerating technologies — particularly AI.  In particular, he predicts that in 2045 — exactly 2045 — the Singularity will be reached and that machine intelligence will be infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined.

In his view, ever accelerating technological advances will inevitably transform humanity as they augment themselves with genetic alterations, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence.  Some of his sweeping vision of the future will perhaps come true, for example the notion that eventually machine intelligence may, in some sense, be more powerful than our combined human intellect … just as today aircraft fly faster and higher than birds.  In general his predictions range from the obvious to the unknowable to the silly.

On the positive side, Kurzweil envisions a future in which technology permits humankind to transcend its biological limitations.  Of course this is nothing new, humanity has always recognized that the powers of mind are limited, and has always made devices to compensate for those limitations. An obvious cognitive limitation is memory, and writing is a device for storing information outside the head so that it does not have to be remembered.  Calculation shows much the same history, from the abacus to computers we see ever better computational orthoses.

How do you manage your own online / offline, work / life balance?

Not as well as I would like, but I dare say better than most.   My wife Nancy is a terrific help in this regard.

What tips would you give to new students starting out in AI / robotics today?

Become broadly educated beyond just computing and robotics.  Study philosophy and biology among other subjects.

Read more about Ken Ford’s work at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition here.

Here is the abstract of Ken’s talk at UCC for the George Boole 200th Centenary.

After decades of pundits and philosophers arguing that AI is impossible, suddenly that argument has been replaced with the assertion that not only is it possible, but that it is inevitable, perhaps imminent, and apocalyptically dangerous. In only about a decade, the conversation has shifted from you can’t do it … to we shouldn’t do it !  My purpose in this talk will not be to go into these arguments, but rather to draw your attention to an interesting historical parallel between AI and another, older, technology which was also controversial, thought to be impossible, and then deemed to be a great danger to the human race: artificial flight.

From the very beginning, and until modern times, attempts at flight sought to imitate the behavior and specific implementation details of birds.  But the Wright brothers were not trying to mimic bird flight, or build an ornithopter. They asked quite different questions, not about flapping or feathers, but about lift, stability and the dynamics of turning in air. The “imitation game” of the Turing Test has misdirected the ambitions of AI, just as a concern with feathers and flapping misdirected early efforts at flight. Now that we understand them, it is clear that the laws of aerodynamics apply to any wing, natural or artificial; and in the same way the laws of thought apply to reasoning done by any cognitive agent, humans, machine or — we think most interesting of all — a combination of both, working together. Boole believed, as did Leibniz and Lull before him, that human thought is mastered by laws, which could account for how people think. Perhaps computation itself, for which Boole’s ideas played a critical role, is the air that provides lift for the wings of thought.