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The machine that invents

Published: Sunday, Jan. 25 2004

By Tina Hesman
Of the Post-Dispatch

Technically, Stephen Thaler has written more music than any composer in the
world. He also invented the Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush and devices that
search the Internet for messages from terrorists. He has discovered substances
harder than diamonds, coined 1.5 million new English words, and trained robotic
cockroaches. Technically.

Thaler, the president and chief executive of Imagination Engines Inc. in
Maryland Heights, gets credit for all those things, but he's really just "the
man behind the curtain," he says. The real inventor is a computer program
called a Creativity Machine.

What Thaler has created is essentially "Thomas Edison in a box," said Rusty
Miller, a government contractor at General Dynamics and one of Thaler's chief

"His first patent was for a Device for the Autonomous Generation of Useful
Information," the official name of the Creativity Machine, Miller said. "His
second patent was for the Self-Training Neural Network Object. Patent Number
Two was invented by Patent Number One. Think about that. Patent Number Two
was invented by Patent Number One!"

Supporters say the technology is the best simulation of what goes on
in human brains, and the first truly thinking machine.

Others say it is something far more sinister - the beginning of "Terminator"
technology, in which self-aware machines could take over the world.

Thaler's technology was born from near-death experiences of dying computer
programs. Its foundation is the discovery that great ideas are the result of
noisy neurons and faulty memories.

The invention began to take shape in the 1980s. By day, the physicist worked at
McDonnell Douglas Corp., where he wielded a powerful laser beam to crystallize
diamonds. He built elegant computer simulations, called neural networks, to
guide his experiments.

But at night, things were different. Shirley MacLaine and her ilk were all over
the TV and on magazine covers talking about reincarnation and life after death
and near-death experiences. It made Thaler wonder: "What would happen if I
killed one of my neural networks?"

Neural networks can be either software programs or computers designed to model
an object, process or set of data. Thaler reasoned that if a neural network
were an accurate representation of a biological system, he could kill it and
figure out what happens in the brain as it dies.

In biological brains, the information-carrying cells, called neurons, meet at
junctions, called synapses. Brain chemicals, such as adrenaline and dopamine,
flow across the junctions to stimulate or soothe the cells. In the computer
world, there are switches instead of cells. The switches are connected by
numbers or "weights."

So after work, Thaler went home and created the epitome of a killer application
- a computer program he called the Grim Reaper. The reaper dismantles neural
networks by changing its connection weights. It is the biological equivalent of
killing neurons. Pick off enough neurons, and the result is death.

On Christmas Eve 1989, Thaler typed the lyrics to some of his favorite
Christmas carols into a neural network. Once he'd taught the network the songs,
he unleashed the Grim Reaper. As the reaper slashed away connections, the
network's digital life began to flash before its eyes. The program randomly
spit out perfectly remembered carols as the killer application severed the
first connections. But as its wounds grew deeper, and the network faded toward
black, it began to hallucinate.

The network wove its remaining strands of memory together, producing what
someone else might interpret as damaged memories, but what Thaler recognized as
new ideas. In its death spiral, the program dreamed up new carols, each created
from shards of its shattered memories.

"Its last dying gasp was, 'All men go to good earth in one eternal silent
night,'" Thaler said.

But it wasn't the eloquence of the network's last words that captured Thaler's
imagination. What excited him was how noisy and creative the process of dying
was. It gave Thaler ideas. What if, he asked, I don't cut the connections, but
just perturb them a little?

Thaler built another neural network and trained it to recognize the structure
of diamonds and some other super-hard materials. He also built a second network
to monitor the first one's activities.

Then he tickled a few of the network's connections, and something began to
happen. The tickling, akin to a shot of adrenaline or an electrical jolt in the
brain, produced noise. In this sense, noise is not sound, but random activity.
And the noise triggered changes in the network.

The result was new ideas. The computer dreamed up new ultra-hard materials.
Some of the materials are known to humans, but Thaler didn't tell the network
they existed. Other materials are entirely new, unknown to humans or computers

"A little elbow room"

When Rusty Miller went to lunch one day in 1998, he picked up a specialized
computer magazine called PCAI journal. He flipped through the pages and came
across a story about Thaler and his Creativity Machine inventing the ultra-hard
substances. Instantly, Miller knew that Thaler had taken a step beyond other
artificial intelligence technologies, such as fuzzy logic or genetic
algorithms, he said.

The brilliance of Thaler's invention is the noise he introduces into the
system, Miller said.

"Noise allows neurons to have a little elbow room to dream up new ideas,"
Miller said.

Other researchers have come to the same conclusion.

Good old-fashioned artificial intelligence uses human experts to input huge
quantities of data and a list of rules to create a model, said Robert Kozma, a
computer scientist at the University of Memphis. Kozma is experimenting with a
similar technology.

The rigidity of traditional artificial intelligence technologies holds back
creativity, Kozma said.

"This type of rule-based system is frozen. It's dead and cannot get to the
essence of intelligence," Kozma said. "Creativity cannot be derived in a
logical way, in a step-by-step fashion." You need a little noise to come up
with good ideas, he said.

Human brains are also noisy places, said Dr. Walter J. Freeman, a
neurobiologist at the University of California at Berkeley. A debate has raged
for half a century about what the brain does with noise.

Many biologists see noise as just a nuisance or a necessary evil, Freeman said.
The brain devotes many neurons to the same task so it can swamp out that random
activity, those scientists argue.

But Freeman subscribes to an alternative theory - that noise is essential for
the brain to function properly. Noise provides variability that allows
organisms to adapt to new situations, he said.

Kozma has replaced the brain of a robotic toy dog with this new technology. The
idea is to create a robot that can explore a new environment, such as the
surface of another planet, without human guidance. NASA is funding Kozma's

Thaler believes that Kozma's research is derivative of his seminal work.

It's not merely noise that makes Thaler's Creativity Machines so ingenious, he
argues. He has discovered a mathematical equivalent to the fleeting signals
that work on neurons - a special kind of noise.

And Creativity Machines are their own best critics. In fact, they have critic
networks built right in. The critics select the best ideas generated by the
noisy networks and reward good work. The feedback helps the network dream up
even better ideas.

Bunker-busting robots

Thaler, too, is engineering independent robots. A glossy, black, plastic
cockroach named H3 could be the prototype for swarms of bunker-busting robots
that could seek out, explore and use collective intelligence to defeat an enemy
target. The U.S. Air Force has contracted Thaler to create such robots.

Robots, including Mars rovers, have been programmed with artificial
intelligence before, Thaler said. But those robots require human engineers to
program in leg movements and rules for getting around obstacles. Each unique
encounter requires new programming, new rules, and time.

H3 gets no tutelage from Thaler at all. A sonar beacon beckons the robot, and
H3's legs begin to flail. Every time the robot makes a movement that carries it
closer to the signal, it learns the value of the move. Within a few seconds,
the cockroach coordinates enough good moves to scuttle toward the signal.

But Thaler hasn't stopped with robots. Creativity Machines can solve just about
any problem in any field, he says.

A Creativity Machine used two neural networks to study toothbrush design and
performance. A brainstorming session between the two produced the idea to cross
the bristles of the toothbrush for optimal cleaning. That toothbrush became the
Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush.

In one weekend, a Creativity Machine learned a sampling of some of Thaler's
favorite Top 10 hits from the past three decades and then wrote 11,000 new
songs. Some are good, Thaler said. Miller confesses to being haunted by one of
the melodies in a minor key. Other offerings are the musical equivalent of a
painting of dogs playing poker, Thaler said.

But computer-composed music doesn't have to be bad. Human mentors with good
taste could train a critic network to grade the Creativity Machine's songs,
punish it for bad tunes and reward it for harmonious melodies. The feedback
would hone the machine's composing skills.

Such a self-training system was the Creativity Machine's first invention, and
the subject of Thaler's second patent.

Carmakers and security industries want to use machines to identify obstacles,
pedestrians or intruders. Some machines can identify certain objects, but
change lighting conditions or mist the lens with water, and the system falls

Thaler spins a collection of toy cars, trucks and planes on an old turntable in
his office while a Creativity Machine watches. The computer learns to
distinguish Hummers from pickups and F-18s from 747s, no matter if the object
is lit by a searchlight or sits in shadow or if rain spatters the windshield.
The technology could alert drivers to whether they are about to back over a boy
or a bicycle. Battlefield commanders might use similar technology to assess
damage and decide whether to send in more bombs.

Machines trained to detect dangerous objects could replace humans at baggage
screening stations or watch for suspicious behavior.

Thaler's first contract with the Air Force used a Creativity Machine to help
design warheads that reconfigure the pattern of shrapnel scattering. That's
important to limit collateral damage and to save money by tailoring bombs to
destroy a target in one hit.

Thaler's machines engage in the guilty pleasure of reading supermarket
tabloids. The networks learn how to write tabloid headlines. The "International
Expirer" quickly became a hit on the Internet. But the computer reporters of
the tabloid "have no shame," and generated such celebrity-skewering headlines
that Thaler removed the Expirer to avoid libel and slander suits.

Spy agencies want to use Thaler's technology to map the Internet and detect
unusual activity.

Thaler coined more than a million new English words by showing a network a
list of words. It learned rules of spelling and pronunciation and generated new
words. In one trial, the network came up with a name for one of Thaler's
spinoff companies - Synaptrix. The words are nonsense now, but Thaler predicts
that companies could use them to name products. The machine also liked "eggo."
Too bad that one is already taken.

The technology is not ready for widespread commercial use yet, say some

"It's got extraordinary potential. Right now the holdup is packaging the
technology as a tool that somebody can actually pull off the shelf and use,"
said Lloyd Reshard, the Weapons Platform Integration Team Lead at the Air Force
Research Laboratory Munitions Directorate at Eglin Air Force Base. With other
artificial intelligence technologies, "software is commercially available on
the street, but if you want to apply a Creativity Machine to your problem,
there's no software package you can go out and buy."

The Air Force is working with Thaler now to solve that problem, Reshard said.

"I might lose my job"

All of the possible applications for Creativity Machines make some people
uneasy. The machines could easily supplant people for many mundane jobs, and
Thaler predicts that some traditionally human-only jobs, including laboratory
scientist, could be up for grabs. Computer chemists could soon design new
compounds and figure out how to make them.

The machines could even be used to solve pressing societal problems, Thaler

The prospect is just too much for people who see machines as a possible threat
to humans.

The normal human response is, "Don't want it. No thanks. I might lose my job,"
Miller said.

Or worse, sentient machines could decide that they don't need humans at all and
do away with people. That fear is fueled by the plots of science-fiction
movies, such as "The Terminator." In that movie, a satellite called Skynet
became self-aware, saw humans as a threat and destroyed more than 3 billion

Sci-fi fans see similarity between Thaler's thinking machines and Skynet.
There's even an eerie coincidence between the fictional satellite's Judgment
Day - August 29, 1997 - and the date the patent for Creativity Machine became
final - August 19, 1997.

But Thaler doesn't see the world ending at the hands of the machines.

"I can never imagine a world that looks like 'Terminator.' What do people want?
Food. Land. Mates. Machines aren't interested in that," Thaler said.

Miller, who is in the business of protecting U.S. computers from foreign
attackers, agrees that machines are not the real threat. He worries more about
humans with malicious intent turning Creativity Machines into weapons. Other
countries are already studying U.S. patents and experimenting with
revolutionary technologies. Terrorists could follow suit, he says.

"If the U.S. doesn't wake up and pay attention, we're going to get smoked,"
Miller warns. "It's important for people to understand. It doesn't have
anything to do with the business of business. It's about America."

Some people are threatened by the idea that machines could think like humans,
Kozma said. They don't like the idea of computers out-creating humans, he said.

But Thaler's machines may never match the unique qualities of humans, no matter
how clever they are at designing toothbrushes or warheads, Miller said.

Miller, a former ballet dancer and Green Beret, says he enjoys competing
against Thaler's neural networks, even when they beat him. Miller will always
have a toe up on the machines, he says.

"None of his computers can do ballet."


Reporter Tina Hesman
Phone: 314-340-8325


   machine that invents     

WWW PIVOT.NET       (whole words work best)

Site Map       Parent Level

Transportation ] Keys to the Universe ] Space ] Knowledge Management ] The Singularity ] Artificial Life ] Nanotechnology ] Technology ] Science ] Life Extension ] Brain Food ]

Same Level

Uploading Life to Space ] Web Within ] Robotics ] Thaler Interview ] Testing Darwin ] [ machine that invents ] Living Machines ]

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