Belfast Telegraph

A computer with a mind of its own is not so far-fetched

By Sarah Brett

"THE great question is, will it ever be possible to build machines which perform learning, creativity and conscious- ness in the same way as people do?"

"THE great question is, will it ever be possible to build machines which perform learning, creativity and conscious- ness in the same way as people do?"

Since he was in short trousers, Professor Paul McKevitt has been fascinated by both science fact and science fiction.

Now nearly 40 - the trousers are a lot longer; he's at least six foot four - the Donegal man has published seven books and around 50 papers in international academic journals, and packs lecture halls at Magee College in Derry every week.

"Artificial intelligence (AI) has the power to transform the lives of people with disabilities, and make all our lives richer and more fulfilling", he smiles.

He's got some fantastic ideas - ideas that could enable him to retire before his father - if there was a capitalist bone in his body.

"Natural language processing is my main interest, getting computers to under- stand and use human language", he explains.

So then computers will be able to back chat you as well? It means for example that computers will be able to read out files and web pages to visually impaired people".

Okay, so it's a good thing.

"Voice recognition technology is something that is being advanced all the time.

"Applications exists where you can move money around in your bank accounts, get tourist and flight information and find out what the weather forecast is like, just by speaking to a computer.

"They are not widely used yet but they will be. It's the computer driving the conversation; free speech is the next step.

"The ultimate goal is intelligent systems that are like people - like in the film Blade Runner".

Twenty years on Ridley Scott's film remains the defining vision of futuristic science fiction, but the idea of rebellious replicant Rutger Hauer chasing me over rooftops because he got smarter than me is not exactly Speak and Spell.

Why is it that while we strive to advance technology, all our films about intelligent systems involve a worst case scenario for the human race?

Take 2001 a Space Odyssey. HAL the computer goes madder than a bag of badgers and almost wipes out an entire space crew.

"That's one of my favourite films - originally a story by Arthur C Clarke - and one that really inspired me", says Paul, worryingly.

"People are afraid of machines, even though we build them.

"There's a fear they might take over, become more intelligent than we are - but if that's the case, then just like HAL, they would be subject to all our frailties, like mental illness.

"The whole thing is progressing very slowly, so it will be a very long time, if ever, before we have artificially intelligent robots.

"So much more work need to be done on how our brains work, as well as advancing AI technology a hundred fold".

But in the present, Paul's work is still groundbreaking.

"My latest research work is focused on computational storytelling. We are developing a system called Confucius, where existing stories from Alice in Wonderland to Samuel Beckett's plays are fed into a computer and then from that text input the computer automatically tries to produce 3D animation and speech or dialogue between characters to tell that story.

"And it chooses appropriate music to depict the emotions of that story - the work is quite innovative".

It's also the subject of Paul's latest book: 'Language, Vision and Music' and the crux of an innovative plan to combine Magee's new creative and performing arts centre with IT.

With almost 100 students already hanging on Paul's every word in Magee's lecture halls, we can expect the North West to produce many more top brains in the field of AI.

Time to stop swearing at the computer.

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