Sunday, March 09, 2008

Brief Report on AGI-08


The AGI-08 conference ( occurred last weekend in Memphis...!

I had hoped to write up a real scientific summary of AGI-08, but at the moment it doesn't look like I'll find the time, so instead I'll make do with this briefer and more surface-level summary...

Firstly, the conference went VERY well. The tone was upbeat, the discussions were animated and intelligent, and all in all there was a feel of real excitement about having so many AGI people in one place at one time.

Attendance was good: We originally anticipated 80 registrants but had 120+.

The conference room was a futuristic setting called "The Zone" that looked sorta like the Star Trek bridge -- with an excellent if mildly glitchy video system that, during Q&A sessions, showed the questioner up on a big screen in front of the room.

The unconventional format (brief talks followed by long discussion/Q&A) sessions was both productive and popular. The whole thing was video-ed and at some point the video record will be made available online (I don't know the intended timing of this yet).

The proceedings volume was released by IOS Press a few weeks before the conference and is a thick impressive-looking tome.

The interdisciplinary aspect of the conference seemed to work well -- e.g. the session on virtual-worlds AI was chaired by Sibley Verbeck (CEO of Electric Sheep Company) and the session on neural nets was chaired by Randal Koene (a neuroscientist from Boston University). This definitely made the discussions deeper than if it had been an AI-researchers-only crowd.

Plenty of folks from government agencies and large and small corporations were in attendance, as well as of course many AI academics and non-affiliated AGI enthusiasts. Among the AI academics were some highly-respected stalwarts of the AI community, alongside the new generation...

There seemed to be nearly as many Europeans as Americans there, which was a pleasant surprise, and some Asians as well.

The post-conference workshop on ethical, sociocultural and futurological issues drew about 60 people and was a bit of a free-for-all, with many conflicting perspectives presented quite emphatically and vociferously. I think most of that discussion was NOT captured on video (it took place in a different room where video-ing was less convenient), though the workshop talks themselves were.

The media folks in attendance seemed most energized by the section on AI in virtual worlds, which is because in this section the presenters (me, Andrew Shilliday, and Martin Magnusson) showed movies of cute animated characters doing stuff. This gave the nontechnical observers something to grab onto, which most of the other talks did not.

As at the earlier AGI-06 workshop, one of the most obvious observations after listening to the talks was that a lot of AGI research programs are pursuing fairly similar architectures and ideas but using different languages to describe what they're doing. This suggests that making a systematic effort at finding a common language and really understanding the true overlaps and differences of the various approaches, would be very beneficial. There was some talk of organizing a small, invitation-only workshop among practicing AGI system architects, perhaps in Fall 2008, with a view toward making progress in this direction.

Much enthusiasm was expressed for an AGI-09, and it was decided that this will likely be located in Washington DC, a location that will give us the opportunity to use the conference to help energize various government agencies about AGI.

There was also talk about the possibility of an AGI online technical journal, and a group of folks will be following that up, led by Pei Wang.

An "AGI Roadmap" project was also discussed, which would involve aligning different cognitive architectures currently proposed insofar as possible, but also go beyond that. Another key aspect of the roadmap might be an agreement on certain test environments or tasks that could be used to compare and explore various AGI architectures in more of a common way than is now possible.

Lots of ideas ... lots of enthusiasm ... a strong feeling of community-building ... so, I'm really grateful to Stan Franklin, Pei Wang, Sidney DeMello and Bruce Klein and everyone else who helped to organize the conference.

Finally, an interesting piece of feedback was given by my mother, who knows nothing about AGI research (she runs a social service agency) and who did not attend the conference but read the media coverage afterwards. What she said is that the media seems to be taking a far less skeptical and mocking tone toward AGI these days, as opposed to 7-10 years ago when I first started appearing in the media now and then. I think this is true, and it signifies a real shift in cultural attitude. This shift is what allowed The Singularity Is Near to sell as many copies as it did; and what encouraged so many AI academics to come to a mildly out-of-the-mainstream conference on AGI. Society, including the society of scientists, is starting to wake up to the notion that, given modern technology and science, human-level AGI is no longer a pipe dream but a potential near-term reality. w00t! Of course there is a long way to go in terms of getting this kind of work taken as seriously as it should be, but at least things seem to be going in the right direction.

Balancing concrete work on AGI with community-building work like co-organizing AGI is always a tricky decision for me.... But in this case, the conference went sufficiently well that I think it was worthwhile to deviate some time from the R&D to help out with it. (And now, back to the mass of other work that piled up for me during the conference!)

1 comment:

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