Update from "Artificial Intelligence" by Stephanie Dick


"Artificial Intelligence" at Sunflower explores what AI is, how AI works, what AI is being used to do in the world, and what effects it is having on our society. All of these important questions can be explored more meaningfully when you know how computer programs work. As such, Week Two was all about introducing students to "how programmers think."

Thinking like a programmer is all about trying to break down tasks into series of instructions. We started out programming each other - rather than a computer - by coding various activities, like walking and dancing in APLAL ("A Programming Language for Arms and Legs.") This was a way to introduce the idea of 'formalization,' but also to get students thinking about what formalization leaves out, and what kinds of things they believe cannot be formalized. In attempting to code a "dance" for example, the students reached a unanimous verdict that both 'flow' and 'feeling' are not formalizable. This exercise also highlighted that most profound difference between humans and machines - that we, unlike them, are not mere rule followers. Ms. Morton put it perfectly to a class-mate: "That's not part of my program. I'm gonna need you to get yourself together. Formalize yourself girl!"

morton gray.jpg

We then moved on to code computers in the programming language Python. Their first Python assignment was to create a MAD LIBS program that requested ten specific words from a user and then printed the first paragraph of a Stanislaw Lem short story from our course reader about AI with those words included. As the culmination of the programming part of the course, each student is coding a "chat bot" - a program that can exchange written communication with a human user, one of the oldest genres of AI programs - with its own personality. Stay tuned for some sassy, hilarious, and compelling human-computer conversations this weekend! Maybe one of them will even pass the Turing Test... 

Andrew Donnelly