About 20 touring Japanese businessmen crowded into a small meeting room in an office building on Wilshire Boulevard last week to hear how the intimidating logic of a Sherlock Holmes could be harnessed and put to work for the likes of Kawasaki Steel or Matsushita Electric.
Computer scientists from Silogic, a young Los Angeles firm, were using one of the fictional British detective's more spectacular deductions (there was chalk on Watson's left hand; therefore, he had decided not to invest in South African securities) to illustrate what their software can do. And never mind that their product speaks only English.
"We'll have available a Japanese language interface early next year," sales director John Weil assured the group.
Clearly, these people aren't hawking vegetable slicers. This is the selling of artificial intelligence, and it's getting to be serious business. The technology that endows computers with certain human-like mental powers has emerged from the laboratory and, for better or worse, entered the real world.
"There is a buck to be made in artificial intelligence now," said Woody Bledsoe, a pioneer in the field and president of the American Assn. for Artificial Intelligence, an academic organization that hosted an uncharacteristically noisy and crowded biennial conference at UCLA last week.
The scientific meetings were overshadowed by a trade show where 60 exhibitors drew about 5,500 attendees--more than triple the number at the previous conference. The action spilled over into hospitality suites in the Beverly Hilton, Westwood Marquis and other hotels, where products could be privately shown, drinks served and deals cut.
"This conference used to be a sort of quiet, pastoral setting," said Stephen Crocker, head of the computer science laboratory at the nonprofit Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, a federal contract research center. He betrays some ambivalence about the commercialization.
"It's the payoff after all those years of research," Crocker said. "But you name it, and it's been oversold. The most tantalizing claims are the least likely to be true. . . . Caveat emptor is good advice."
Indeed, "artificial intelligence" is something of a misnomer when applied to today's commercially available products. Critics say most are merely "expert systems" that are fed highly specialized knowledge and in turn can interpret an electrocardiogram or forecast an avalanche. Diagnosing, monitoring or interpreting from a limited amount of information hand-fed to a computer is a far cry from the level of reasoning powers being sought in the next generation of computers.
Personal-computer pioneer Alan Kay, who is now a "fellow" at Apple Computer, says today's systems have about the same intelligence as a termite. And he bemoans the flight of academicians to fill a mushrooming demand for AI researchers, at the expense of pure scientific study in the field.
Doing Practical Things
"It's getting hard to find any graduate students who are in graduate school anymore," Kay said. "They're all out doing practical things. Some of those things are so practical that they're on a completely different pathway than what needs to be done."
Moreover, AI will remain a tiny part of the computer industry for years to come. Even at an expected 45% annual growth rate from last year's $450 million in revenues, AI would be a $4-billion market in 1990--less than 5% of what is expected to be a $150-billion computer industry.
But for now, AI is a bright spot in an otherwise depressed industry. Not only is there rapid growth in sales, but also a shrinkage in price: Computer systems designed for AI that used to cost $100,000 are dropping to the $30,000 range. Some software programs are now being written for personal computers, a boon to those who might not have access to more costly systems.
And, as Kay acknowledged at a panel discussion last week, "Termites can do marvelous things."
Once considered a slightly arcane sub-category of computer science--"We march to a different drummer," Bledsoe says--artificial intelligence has lately gained visibility because of its importance in the well-publicized international race to develop the fifth-generation computer. At the University of Texas, according to Bledsoe, fully half the students entering the computer-science graduate program are specializing in artificial intelligence.
While AI funding historically has come almost entirely from the Pentagon, the field gained new commercial credibility when NASA earlier this year found privately available AI technology feasible for use in the space shuttle. Venture capitalists are rushing in, and such industry heavyweights as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment in the past few weeks announced their first AI products.