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‘AI’ In the Works ...

Haley Osment, Media Lab Bigwigs Discuss Film

By Erik Blankinship

Staff writer

Students and press were treated to a frothy discussion on artificial intelligence (AI) in adulation of Stephen Spielberg’s latest movie, AI. In attendance were longtime Spielberg collaborator producer Kathleen Kennedy and Sixth Sense actor Haley Joel Osment.

Under a very large banner for the film, the press event was introduced by Professor Rodney Brooks as a discussion about AI the movie, AI the reality, and AI the future, “which none of us know a damn thing about.” Despite this opening claim, Professor Kurzweil predicted that by 2030 that there will be no distinction between human AI and machine AI, as researchers will reverse engineer the human brain.

Spielberg delivered a videotaped apology on Tuesday for missing the lectures of four MIT artificial intelligence (AI) professors. Students and press were in attendance for the director’s recorded remarks and a first-ever look at his new film AI.

Professor Sherry Turkle gave a brief history of how children have described artificially “alive” things, citing research from Piaget on how children in the 1920s described moving things as “alive” and how these conceptions have changed with the advent of digital toys like Simon, and more recently, the Furbie.

A brief clip from AI the movie was introduced by producer Kennedy, who apologized for its roughness and announced she was returning to California that evening to continue work on the film.

In the dialogue of the scene, actor William Hurt described building a “mecha” who could truly love to a crowd of suits. His lines provide the loose scientific exposition for the film, in a manner similar to Jurassic Park’s animated “Mr. DNA.”

I also saw a hint of the soft-seeping lighting of Professor Henry Jones’ college library in Raiders of the Lost Arc. This isn’t a complaint that the film looked derivative -- I happen to like Spielberg’s repertoire. The science fiction visuals were introduced when Hurt opens the mechanical face of a “mecha” to remove her computer brain, which prompts one tear to fall from her eye onto her titanium cheek (a nod to Blade Runner?).

The clip ended, and the audience was free to question Kennedy and Osment about how MIT’s research influenced the production (“nothing” said Kennedy). Osment described how he played a robot as “basic, simple, deliberate ... not robotic, but not human ... something you’ve never seen before” and also commented that he never blinks once in the film. One member of the audience questioned the need for another “robot” film, citing the Terminator, D.A.R.Y.L., the Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform, and Small Wonder as evidence of an over-saturated market. The question prompted hissing from the audience and a response from Kennedy to “see the film and decide for yourself.”

When asked what it was like to work with the mysterious “sentient machine therapist” Jeanine Salla, Osment said he had not met her but has heard “good things about her.” Before leaving, Kennedy mentioned she would leave Dr. Salla’s business cards for the audience.

For those not “in the know,” Dr. Jeanine Salla is listed in the credits for the film with the title “sentient machine therapist.” In the last few weeks, some web surfers uncovered her personal web site at “Bangalore World University” and links to her students’ web sites, robot liberation organizations, and news stories about the death of colleague “Evan Chan.”

An online organization quickly formed -- the Cloudmakers -- to solve the puzzles surrounding Chan’s death. The puzzles involve web site passwords, voice mailbox systems, and hidden HTML links. The AI online game is similar to an old M.I.T. Media Lab project, “Lurker,” and plays like what gamers’ anticipate from Electronic Arts’ Majestic. It was recently revealed that Microsoft is behind the game which didn’t seem quite right, until a few remembered that Microsoft recently acquired super talented gamer makers Bungie, makers of Myth and Marathon.

The evening after the AI presentation, the Cloudmakers had contacted me via email requesting a copy of Dr. Salla’s business card. A few challenged my identity in online news forums, claiming I was not a real student but rather a Warner Bros. plant. Needless to say, it was a bizarre experience to become a character in the game for a day ... did the Cloudmakers perhaps know about my previous work experience with Dr. Salla?