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Intelligent Machines

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Saturday 23 June 2012

Thinking machines are an age-old obsession but it's not until the last half a century that they have become a practical challenge.

This week, to mark the centenary of the father of computing Alan Turing, the Forum looks at the shifting boundary between people and machines.

Carrie Gracie is joined by Luis von Ahn, a software inventor who designed a simple but effective test to distinguish humans from software bots, which millions of us take on websites every day.

We also talk to Manuela Veloso, who is developing Cobots, a new type of robot able to know its limitations and ask if it needs help.

And Peter Swirski, who is an expert in science fiction literature and poses philosophical questions about creativity in a world of intelligent machines.

Illustration by Emily Kasriel: when will humans and machines be unable to distinguish who's doing the talking?


4 items
  • Luis von Ahn

    Luis von Ahn

    Chances are that those of us who use the internet have met one of Luis von Ahn’s inventions, the reCaptcha, those random, skewed letters which we have to type correctly before entering some websites thus proving that we are a human, not a software bot. Did you know that by typing a reCaptcha you’re helping to digitise old books? Many of Von Ahn’s research interests focus on ‘human computation’: methods that combine human brainpower with computers to solve problems that neither could master alone. His latest project is to translate the web into the world’s major languages.

    Photo credit: Frederick M. Brown/ Getty Images

    Help translate the web and learn a language
  • Manuela Veloso

    Manuela Veloso

    Manuela Veloso, Professor of Computer Science and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is developing a new type of robot, the CoBot. These machines are designed as helpful companions to humans, especially in office environments, to deliver mail, fetch coffee, or guide visitors. The Cobots are acutely aware of their perceptual, physical and reasoning limitations. So if there is something a CoBot cannot do, for instance press an elevator button, it will proactively ask for help from a human nearby. Is the future of robotics ‘the asking machine’?

    Veloso: CoBots
  • Peter Swirski

    Peter Swirski

    Peter Swirski is a critic and culture theorist specialising in American literature and society, as well as a leading scholar of the celebrated Polish science fiction writer and philosopher Stanislaw Lem. Swirski is currently affiliated with University of Missouri-St. Louis, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, and Thesaurus Poloniae Research Fellowship Program in Cracow, Poland. He suggests that, eventually, we will have not just authors, but also ‘computhors’, computer authors. Computhors will challenge our ideas of literature, originality and taste, and could even evolve into independent entities.

    Swirski: American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History

    Peter Swirski suggests that we should have edible gourmet books. This has been prompted by the incessant media suggestions that the printed book is about to give up the ghost, as well as by news about illiteracy and world hunger. So if, after reading a book, you could consume it with relish, you would be fighting illiteracy and world hunger at once. And it would make publishers work harder: they would have to look for that elusive combination of artistic and gastronomic qualities to attract the largest numbers of readers-eaters.

  • In Next Week’s Programme:

    Is New York the most selfish city in the world? The Forum goes to the Big Apple to ask writer Jeffrey Eugenides, neuroscientist Heather Berlin and entomologist Mark Moffett.


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