In 1973, Lucasian professor at Cambridge, James Lighthill, was asked by the British Parliament to evaluate the state of AI research in the United Kingdom. His report, now called the Lighthill report, criticized the failure of AI to achieve its grandiose objectives. He specifically mentioned the problem of “combinatorial explosion” or “intractability” of the discourse universe, which implied that many of AI’s most successful algorithms would grind to a halt faced with real world problems and were only suitable for solving toy versions.
The report was contested in a debate broadcast as part of the BBC series “Controversy” in 1973. The debate, which was on the proposition “The general purpose robot is a mirage,” was sponsored by the Royal Institute and pitted Lighthill against a team of researchers, including Donald Michie and Richard Gregory and led by the young AI researcher John McCarthy. The report led to the near-complete dismantling of AI research in England.
Here is the debate on YouTube (in 6 parts):
This debate goes to show that as recently as 1973 it was generally believed (as indeed it still is in some quarters), that one had to write a complex program to obtain complex behavior, or that no simple rule could produce complex behavior (2nd. part, min 7:45). This position was epitomized by Lighthill.
Lighthill’s position does not come as a surprise. He was, after all, a researcher in fluid dynamics and aeroacoustics, where it is easy to be misled by complicated differential equations involving ‘continuous’ variables and where nonexistent solutions arise so often. His main argument was that because one had to specify the rules in a computer to tell the robot how to behave in every possible scenario, every attempt to come up with a general purpose robot would quickly turn out to be an intractable problem, with a combinatorial explosion of possible solutions. I don’t entirely disagree with Lighthill on this, but I can by no means endorse his conclusion.
Unfortunately the response of the researchers on the panel was rather weak, except for a couple of minor arguments put forward by McCarthy to what seemed to be fundamental impediments that Lighthill appeared to be invoking. From my point of view, one of the items that should have been put on the table ought to have been a serious discussion of whether universal computation actually had something to tell us about the possibility of general purpose artificial intelligence (i.e. what the abstract could say about the concrete). Also the question of the essential differences, if any, between advanced automation and artificial intelligence, which McCarthy seems to have broached in one of his arguments against Lighthill, without reaching any conclusions. Indeed the point may be that there is no essential difference, which is something that was perhaps difficult to see back then. But instead of considering this as a caveat against AI, as Lighthill seemed inclined to do, it actually makes AI inevitable in the event, even if achieved by means other than those traditionally employed in AI labs.
If automation is not really that different from AI, as I think has been proven over the years, what this suggests is that automation will eventually lead to what we think of as intelligent behavior and therefore to artificial intelligence.
In the end, Lighthill’s position was reduced by the moderator (Sir George Porter) to an argument about pragmatic difficulties rather than about the fundamental impossibility of the project, in response to which Lighthill quipped that his neuroscientist friends had made it plain that they felt it was hopeless to try and model the brain using a computer. I find several problems with this position, beginning with the assumption that AI is exclusively about trying to mimic the brain.
Donald Michie made a good point concerning the combinatorial explosion made so much of by Lighthill by citing the example of chess. In 1973 humans were still better at playing chess, so he asked whether Lighthill would acknowledge artificial intelligence if a machine performing an exhaustive search turned out to win a chess match against a Master.
In 1968, David Levy was an international Master and he bet a thousand pounds that no computer program would beat him in the next 10 years. He won his bet in 1978 by beating Chess 4.7 (the strongest computer at the time). Lighthill responded that a chess program would avoid the combinatorial explosion by virtue of having the benefit of human knowledge. In any case, he said, he was reluctant to believe that a chess program would ever beat a human chess player. Lighthill was cleverly hedging his bets.
Lighthill’s position wasn’t totally clear at the end of the debate–was his argument purely pragmatic or did it concern something fundamental? I’m not wholly unsympathetic to his position because AI has been misleading as a field. While it has certainly made some contributions to science and technology, it has achieved what it has by dint of technological improvements (hardware capabilities) rather than scientific breakthroughs (e.g. a set of sophisticated new algorithms) on the part of the AI community. And I have explained this in some detail in my previous blog post on the IBM computer Watson in the Jeopardy! game Is Faster Smarter?