(My) Artificial Intelligence Origin Story

The Apprentice, Manon DE PAUW — © Photo Francis Dion

I first got interested in artificial intelligence some 40 years ago. I was 12 and reading two books per day, every day; this was clearly the pre-internet era! One of my favourite authors was Isaac Asimov. I was immediately hooked by his robot stories, his Three Laws of Robotics and the ethical/existential contradictions and puzzles they could (will?) create.

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A few years later, I was privileged to be part of the first generation of teenagers with access to a personal computer at home (thanks dad, and go Vic 20!).

Commodore Vic-20

Naturally, the first thing I did was to program it to beat me at a few games. My earliest programs were:

  • A Pac-Man look-alike, with phantoms chasing me through auto-generated mazes.
  • A homing missile trying to catch  –  and destroy  – my hapless plane.
  • A chess program capable of checkmating me 100% of the time when starting with the queen and king against the king. Think this is easily done? Remember this was using a total of 8K RAM, including a very nice graphical rendering of the chess board and pieces!
  • A program for solving the Tower of Hanoi problem with any number of rings, WITHOUT relying on a recursive algorithm. This project was done by observing a subject matter expert (my friend Louis-Stéphane Trudel) solving the problem with ease, by pure intuition; he was the true genius, I was just a competent brain-to-silicon translator. 😊
Greetings from Joshua (WarGames, 1983)

Then, the movie WarGames came out, starring Matthew Broderick. The idea of trying to understand the “psychology” of a computer through a natural language interface (in today’s fad-talk: a chatbot) was so fascinating to me that I immediately got started writing my own general-purpose natural language processing engine. I, of course, got nowhere very fast.

A few years later, I started a Master’s degree in Expert Systems (old-talk for “maybe-AI-but-with-limited-expectations-so-we-can-sell-it-to-the-boss”). I dabbled in various programming paradigms and got through formal systems with relative ease, thanks mostly to Douglas Hofstadter’s wonderful book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. The course that really got me fired-up, however, was Philosophical Aspects of Artificial Intelligence. It really got me thinking about notions like free will, self-determination and autopoiesis. Sadly, I never finished this Master’s degree as by then I had caught the entrepreneurial bug and started to pour my entire heart and soul (with a fair amount of sweat and blood) into building an award-winning, fast-growing software company.

As I am taking a break from the business, I figured the timing was ideal to get back to the roots of my passion for computers. It’s now too late for me to make any contribution to fundamental research; however, my business and leadership experience acquired over the past 20 years can for sure benefit transitioning and adapting the field’s latest advancements to practical, value-creating implementations in industry. With the availability of increasingly powerful algorithms as free open-source projects or through so-called “cognitive” services, I believe core machine learning capabilities are fast becoming a commodity for all companies and organizations to take advantage of. Competitive advantage will therefore be coming through expertise in applying these capabilities, but also – and especially – through the ability to harness an organization’s own knowledge, wisdom and expertise for the training and deployment of highly focused and proficient robots, whether of the physical or the chatty kind.

Stanford University Machine Learning Online Course

After surveying the landscape for artificial intelligence and machine learning training, I’ve decided to enroll in the Stanford University’s Machine Learning Course by Professor Andrew Ng. This 12-week program promises to be both wide in its coverage of the field and also deep enough to provide more than just a cursory knowledge of the fundamental concepts. Stay tuned as I share my progress through the program, hopefully giving you an appreciation for its content, but also of my own challenges as I struggle through it.

How about you? Do you have a long-held interest in the field, or is it a newly acquired taste? How are you planning on getting and staying up-to-speed?


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Francis Dion is a tech founder, passionate about artificial intelligence, leadership, entrepreneurship, sales and marketing.

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