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Hector Levesque answers our questions about artificial intelligence

AAAS Fellow Hector Levesque has researched reasoning in computers in Canada throughout his career. (Photo: Jim des Rivieres)

AAASMC is going to Canada for the 2012 AAAS Annual Meeting held in Vancouver. We are using this as an opportunity to get to know some of the AAAS fellows who are from Canada.

Meet Hector Levesque, he is a fellow of AAAS and professor at the University of Toronto. He was one of the founding fellows of the American Association of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), for where he also served on the Executive Council. He is also on the editorial boards of the Journal of Artificial Intelligence. Levesque is interested in reasoning and how knowledge is represented in artificial intelligence. Levesque sat down with AAASMC to talk about his work and where he thinks artificial intelligence will go in the future.

AAASMC: Why did you first want to become a scientist?
Hector Levesque, AAAS Fellow and professor at the University of Toronto: I suppose I have always been fascinated by how things work, natural as well as artificial, and the workings of an autonomous intelligent being is perhaps the single most mysterious of them all.

AAASMC: Most of your research has been in artificial intelligence and computers, why do you find these fields fascinating?
Levesque: The most fascinating thing about artificial intelligence to me is how it connects in so many interesting ways to so many other areas of research: computer science (of course), but also, psychology, linguistics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience and philosophy, among others.

AAASMC: What are you currently looking into? Where do you hope your research will lead?
Levesque: My own research is primarily concerned with thinking (as opposed to related topics like learning or perception) as a form of computation.  How should we interpret the biological process that takes place when we sit down, close our eyes, and think deeply about some subject, such as who should win the Academy Award for best actress?  Why do some thoughts occur to us so easily, and others seem to require such effort and concentration?  How does this biological process change as the subject we think about changes?

AAASMC: What do you see as the future of computers and artificial intelligence? What do you think these technologies will do for the world?
Levesque: The technological prospects of artificial intelligence are far from clear. It would be terrific to have intelligent computer systems that help people deal with difficult decisions, or at least warn them if bad ones are about to be made.  But I'm not so sure that there will be a strong need or desire for fully autonomous artificial intelligence systems. A good indication of what might happen can be seen in chess playing programs.  The best of them are very strong players, perhaps better than their human competitors.  Yet what has happened in the chess community as a whole is that these programs are used mostly as tools to help chess players practice and perform at a higher level. The interest in autonomous computer competitors is low.

AAASMC: There are some debates about what happens when computers learn, and popular culture often expresses a fear of artificial intelligence (iRobot, A.I. and the Matrix for example). What do you think about that? Do you think these fears are well founded or unnecessary?
Levesque: Every technology is potentially dangerous and artificial intelligence is no exception.  The potential threat is certainly real, and in the case of intelligent robots, easy to visualize.  But in my opinion, the threat is relatively small compared to the potential threat posed by areas such as (say) micro-biology.

AAASMC: What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in science right now, either in your field or in another?
Levesque: I find it fascinating to see how over time, some areas of the science move so quickly while others appear to flounder.  The amazing recent progress in micro-biology and genetics is fascinating, but so is the seemingly slow progress in big physics.

AAASMC: What advice do you have for young scientists who are just beginning their careers?
Levesque: Follow your dream.  Do not be discouraged by what the experts say. Work hard. Have fun!

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AAAS Fellow Hector Levesque has researched reasoning in computers in Canada throughout his career. (Photo: Jim des Rivieres)
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Rebecca Riffkin