Sciency Words: Artificial Intelligence

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


In 1955, American cognitive scientists John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky sent out an extraordinary proposal:

We propose that a 2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.  The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.

McCarthy and Minsky go on to write that that machines can be made to learn, solve problems for themselves, and “improve themselves.”  They also claim that “significant advancement” can be made toward these goals if a group of experts were to “work on it together for a summer.”

Ah, such optimism!

That 1955 proposal is the first documented usage of the term “artificial intelligence.”  Apparently McCarthy initially wanted to use the term “automata studies,” but even among scientists and engineers, “automata studies” didn’t sound sexy enough.  So McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” and ran with that instead.

According to this article from the Science History Institute: “The name implied that human consciousness could be defined and replicated in a computer program […].”  Whether of not that’s true—whether or not computers really can reproduce human-style consciousness—is a topic of ongoing debate.  Regardless, McCarthy’s new term got the attention he wanted, and the 1956 conference at Dartmouth was a success.

However, it turns out it would take more than “a summer” to trigger the robot apocalypse.  Still, the 1956 Dartmouth Conference started something important, and today, we are living with the consequences!

Oh No! It’s the Internet!

Here in the U.S., we’re about to celebrate my favorite holiday: Thanksgiving.  It’s a holiday all about good food and spending time with good friends, and… that’s basically it.  And that’s why I love it.  No need to agonize over finding just the right gift, or anything like that.  Just relax and enjoy being human.

This year, I am most thankful for the Internet.  Now you might be thinking how could anyone be thankful for the Internet?  There’s so much online harassment going on.  Political disinformation campaigns are plentiful.  People are being cheated and scammed, and faceless corporations are collecting personal data on each and every one of us.

Yes, the Internet can be a scary place.  Without a doubt, some bad things have happened to me online, and I know far worse things have happened to other people.  But as a wise woman once told me: nothing good in life comes without risk or without sacrifice.  And at least in my personal experience, the good stuff on the Internet far outweighs the bad.

The Internet has fed my passion for writing and art.  It’s fed my passion for science and space exploration.  It’s given me access to so many resources, and I’ve read so much original research (unfiltered by the popular press) thanks to the Internet.  I’ve learned so much, and I’ve been exposed to perspectives and worldviews that I, as someone living in one specific region of the United States, never would have encountered otherwise.  And the Internet has left me with an awareness that, despite all this knowledge I’ve gained, I still have so much more to learn.

And most importantly of all, I’ve made new friends here on the Internet.  I may not have met you in person, but I love you all the same!  I know some people would take a dim view of me for claiming my online friends count as “real” friends, but it’s true.  I really do consider many of you to be good friends.  For that, I am very thankful.

Okay wait… do I really want to share that in a blog post…?

Do You Miss 2D Television?

A few years back, the TV station I work for upgraded to HD.  It cost a lot of money and was a lot of hard work, and everyone was more than happy when it was finished.  At the time, I joked that our next upgrade would be holograms.  Turns out I was right.

According to recent reports, researchers at MIT have developed a new, holographic television.  With current technology, the light shining from your TV screen looks the same in every direction.  As I understand it, a holographic television alters light’s wavelength at different angles, creating a 3D image without the aid of 3D glasses.

A pixel on a regular television looks the same no matter how you see it.
A pixel on a regular television looks the same no matter how you see it.

A pixel on a holographic television appears to be a different color depending on your point of view, creating the illusion of a 3D image.
A pixel on a holographic television appears to be a different color depending on your point of view, creating the illusion of a 3D image.

I have a bad feeling that when this product comes out, all my favorite movies will suddenly look as old-fashioned as black-and-white silent films.  I already feel like a crotchety grandpa shouting, “In my day, televisions showed us two-dimensional pictures, and we liked it!”

On the bright side, the computer chip that makes MIT’s holographic TV work costs about $10.  That’s right: $10.  So at least when these new televisions hit the market, we can expect them to be affordable.

So what do you think?  Are you going to buy a holographic TV?

P.S.: I am not a scientist or engineer.  I’ve done my best to explain how the holographic TV works based on what I’ve read so far, but if you know more about how they work please tell us in the comments below!