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Artificial Intelligence from Mythology to the Classroom

Artificial Intelligence from Mythology to the Classroom


By Dr. Shelley Pumphrey
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Public University

The advent of artificial intelligence (AI) has sparked excitement, curiosity and even fear. When did AI begin and can it ever become the dark adversary like Arthur C. Clarke’s futuristic antagonist HAL 9000 (Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer) in “2001, A Space Odyssey”? Although once relegated to the realm of science fiction, in actuality AI is centuries old.

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Defining Artificial Intelligence in Robots

The Robot Institute of America defines a robot as “a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of task.”

John McCarthy, an early expert in computer programming, the Internet Society, and others explain AI as computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and language translations. The commonality among these and other broad AI definitions is the ability of technology to take on human characteristics.

Earliest Ideas about AI Go Back to the Greeks

The earliest ideas about AI as robots and self-moving objects date back approximately to 750 B.C. Greek mythology speaks of Talos, a giant bronze robot made by Hesiod to protect the island of Crete. The story of Pandora’s Box is well known. Originally, Hesiod described Pandora as an artificial woman. Zeus commissioned Hephaestus to build Pandora to punish humans for the discovery of fire.

Even more stories about mechanical men and mechanical thought can be found in Asian, Greek, Egyptian, and Arabic legends. These mythological stories warned against the interaction between robots and humans because the relationship usually resulted in the destruction or demise of the human.

Real working devices that could complete physical tasks were introduced as early as 400 B.C. For example, Egyptian water clocks used human figurines to strike bells. Other early examples included Archytus of Taremtum’s steam-powered flying wooden pigeon and Petronius Arbiter’s moving doll.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Monster Challenged Ethical Values

Fast-forward in time and the thought of artificial beings capable of human characteristics continued to intrigue creative minds and inspire science fiction. In 1818, Mary Shelley challenged ethical values related to human existence with her literary creation of the Frankenstein monster.

Around this same time, Charles Babbage, the father of the computer, focused on a more realistic opportunity as he attempted to categorize labor into what “humans must do and what might be automated.” This led to his first attempt to create what he called his Difference Engine, an automatic calculator that could complete simple equations in seconds.

Alan Turing Advanced the Concept of Artificial Intelligence as He Championed the Thinking Machine

No discussion of AI is complete without citing Alan Turing. Turing’s 1936 paper, “Computable Numbers,” with an application to the decision problem (a procedure that when given a set of propositions can decide if it is provable) is credited as the foundation of computer science. Turing is also referred to as the father of AI because of his computations and algorithms used in the creation of his Turing machine, which was able to decipher coded messages within the German army in World War II. The objective of the machine was to accelerate the manual process of human decoders by mechanically imitating human reasoning in an effort to decrypt messages.

Turing continued to advance the concept of AI as he championed the thinking machine. The thinking machine was characterized by AI programming, machine learning, and the ability to use logic. It is Turing’s concepts that inspired the software behind the digital intelligence found in the modern technology.

By 1966, the Stanford Research Institute took artificial intelligence to another dimension by building the first mobile robot named Shakey because of its wobble. Capable of reasoning, the robot was designed for specialized academic applications and used in a classroom. Shakey was equipped with a TV camera, triangular range finder, and bump sensors. Connected to a computer, Shakey could move from place to place and compute up to 250,000 calculations per second.

Today, AI is a component of daily activity. Everything from customer support to health care is carried out with the help of AI. Smart cars and drone deliveries are no longer science fiction. Smart home devices that turn lights on and off, set thermostats, and monitor activity are becoming ubiquitous.

Even the Classroom Reflects AI Uses

Today, automated grading, smart content and virtual facilitators are just a few examples of AI in the classroom. As explained in a Microsoft blog post, AI “is not merely ‘digitization’ of existing resources or teaching practices, instead it is adding a new layer of value by delivering data-driven insights and tools to enable access to learning that simply could not be achieved without the power of the intelligent cloud.”

AI is changing the traditional classroom setting in which groups of students were seated at desks or tables surrounded by whiteboards and focused on a teacher. AI tutoring brings a more personalized approach to education. Virtual reality and games make learning fun.

What the Future Might Hold for Artificial Intelligence

What is the future of AI? The pessimist might fear HAL 9000 and the elimination of the role of the teacher. The optimist sees a bright future in which AI enhances society, especially education. Alan Turing may have put it best when he said, “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”

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About the Author

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey is an academic and business leader with over 20 years of teaching experience in technology and business courses at a variety of colleges and universities. She is a former Manager of Communications at Baltimore Gas & Electric and served over 30 years in the energy industry. Dr. Pumphrey earned her Ph.D. in Information Security and published in the areas of alternative fuels and information security.