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'Throughline' examines artificial intelligence — and these days AI is everywhere

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Artificial intelligence in everything from dating apps to medical care forms an invisible architecture for modern life. For humans, it raises a question that science fiction has often grappled with - can we make a more perfect version of ourselves?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FRANKENSTEIN")

COLIN CLIVE: (As Henry Frankenstein) It's alive. It's alive. It's alive.

MARTIN: Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei host NPR's history podcast Throughline, and they bring us this origin story for AI.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: It's the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

MEREDITH BROUSSARD: And 10 men get together to invent the field of artificial intelligence.

ABDELFATAH: This is Meredith Broussard. She's a data journalism professor at New York University.

STEPHANIE DICK: It was instigated by John McCarthy, who was a mathematics professor at Dartmouth.

ABDELFATAH: And Stephanie Dick, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University who specializes in the history of mathematics and computing.

DICK: The proposal that John McCarthy wrote pulls no punches at all - quote...

BROUSSARD: "We propose that a two month, 10-man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H."

DICK: Second sentence.

BROUSSARD: "The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning..."

DICK: "...Or any other feature of intelligence can, in principle, be so precisely described..."

BROUSSARD: "...That a machine can be made to simulate it."

Something else that I think was really interesting about this conference is they decided on the name artificial intelligence as the name of their new field. I think the name was chosen aspirationally. There's a lot of desire to make science fiction real, that you're going to make a sentient machine. It's an enormously grandiose idea.

DICK: The Dartmouth conference has become an origin myth commemorated with a plaque and everything - on this site, artificial intelligence was born. But in practice, the conference was a bit of a flop, actually. There was a lot of conflict and tension and disagreement, and there wasn't actually a coherent field that emerged out of the conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DICK: We hear nothing in that origin myth about the relationship that AI has to industrialization or to capitalism or to these colonial legacies of reserving reason for only certain kinds of people and certain kinds of thinking.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: And that's important because those legacies provided a lot of the vocabulary for the field that would become known as AI. For centuries, factories had been reshaping the nature of work as more and more tasks that had once been done only by human hands were now being done by machines. And this era of rapid technological advancement culminated in the 20th century with the creation of something truly terrifying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: At zero minus 15 seconds, a warning tone sounds in the plane.

ARABLOUEI: The atomic bomb.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

ABDELFATAH: The atom bomb made many people wary of new technologies. But some elite academics and scientists believed that better technology was actually the key to our future.

DICK: What if human decision-making procedures were too slow? What if people's judgments are clouded by their emotions?

ABDELFATAH: The thinking was that we could engineer our way out of the problems we'd created, and that led to a boom in investment in science and technology, including artificial intelligence.

ARABLOUEI: Which brings us back to that famous Dartmouth conference in the summer of 1956. After all, a conference of mathematicians and scientists...

BROUSSARD: Mostly white men who were educated at elite institutions.

ARABLOUEI: ...Seemed like a pretty good investment. And while they couldn't agree on much, they did share a philosophy of AI, characterizing human minds and digital computers as...

DICK: Quote-unquote, "species of the same genus." They are fundamentally the same. Bodies don't matter. Society doesn't matter.

ABDELFATAH: Keep in mind, at this point, computers were so big, they took up whole rooms, made tons of noise and had vacuum tubes for data input.

DICK: You know, the most disturbing part of the history of AI for me comes from the fact that these men who were working in artificial intelligence looked at those massive, noisy, hot mainframe computers and saw themselves in it.

ARABLOUEI: One proposed measure of machine intelligence was something called the Turing test, named for its creator, British mathematician Alan Turing.

ABDELFATAH: The way it works is a computer and a human being are put in separate rooms. A judge asks each of them questions without seeing either.

DICK: And then the judge, of course, is meant to be able to figure out whether the machine is the human or the human is the human. And what I have always found so shocking about the Turing test is that it reduces intelligence to telling a convincing lie, to putting on the performance of being something that you're not.

BROUSSARD: And so we see the blind spots of the creators then reflected in the technological artifacts that they create.

ABDELFATAH: With each new advancement in AI, humans have continued to move the goalpost for what true intelligence means, as we grapple with the same fundamental question those creators did.

DICK: What is it that is uniquely human?

ABDELFATAH: Maybe it's our intuition, our creativity, our emotions.

DICK: And then people try to automate those things. We then redefine our humanness again and again. And what it all draws attention to for me is a sort of deep conviction that what it means to be human is both relative and a moving target in history.

MARTIN: Stephanie Dick spoke with the hosts of Throughline, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can hear the whole Throughline episode wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.