November 11, 2002

Ithaca Discusses Frankenstein Technology

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The Tompkins County Public Library held a community forum with the theme “Frankenstein and the Future of Artificial Intelligence” last Thursday evening. Four specialists in technology and artificial intelligence from Cornell and the Ithaca community spoke about their areas of expertise and discussed the relevance of artificial intelligence with members of the audience.

The forum was part of a series of “Monster Talks” and other activities at the public library to augment the Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature exhibit.

This exhibit, from the American Library Association, complements the 2002 summer reading program of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley that was part of Cornell’s Freshman Reading Project and “Ithaca Reads Frankenstein.” These programs were coordinated by Cornell University, The Ithaca Journal and Borders Bookstore.

Other talks in the series have included “Frankenstein in Film,” “Monster Mondays” that include stories and activities for children and “Bringing Up Monsters: Frankenstein in Education.”

This event, unlike the other “Monster Talks,” was a forum encouraging interaction between a four-member panel and the audience of about 50 people.

Moderator Gary Stewart, assistant director of community relations at Cornell explained the importance of discussing artificial intelligence in the context of Frankenstein.

Panelist Bob Walters teaches technology education at DeWitt Middle School in Ithaca. Walters’ program allows students to solve engineering design problems with various gadgets and practical items.

The students in Walters’ and his co-educator Dave Buchner’s classes have engaged in activities like “Save Humpty Dumpty” in which they had to use a hydraulic system to create a simple machine to retrieve a model of Humpty Dumpty, the egg, off a model wall before he fell.

Walter also described a vehicle that the students have to design which can carry a soda can 20 meters using only solar energy.

Walters stressed the importance of technology education to create citizens of the world who know as much about technology as they do about writing. “Every student in New York state has to learn about technology because that’s what we, as humans, do,” Walters said.

Accordingly, he expressed great concern that the New York State Board of Regents might soon eliminate the current state mandate on technology education programs. Although Walters’ program and many others have shown excellent results, technology education is often one of the first to be cut when funding decreases.

Walters encouraged audience members to write letters showing their support for the program, in order to prevent its abolition.

Panelist Michael Babish M.S. ’02 outlined his role during the past several years with the Cornell RoboCup Soccer Team. The Robotic World Cup Soccer Championship is a competition in which international teams create autonomous robots, not operated by remote control, which must play soccer against each other. The creators of the winning soccer team win the championship.

Babish explained the details of everything from team strategy to the history of the Cornell team and the other applications of their artificial intelligence work.

He cited three reasons for the competition: to foster interest in robotics, to field a team of humanoid robots in 2050 that can beat the real reigning World Cup Soccer Champions and simply because “it’s really cool.”

Some other applications of artificial intelligence and robotics are employed in the fields of mine detection, chess, firefighting, underwater exploration and exploration of Mars.

Prof. Lillian Lee, computer science and Prof. Hod Lipson, mechanical and aerospace engineering also served as panelists.

Lee gave a presentation on the area of Natural Language Processing (NLP), explaining to the audience the difficulties that this area of artificial intelligence encounters in different languages. She focused on “knowledge-lean” methods for automatically learning linguistic knowledge from basic text.

Further, Lee traced this aspect of artificial intelligence and how traditionally it has been portrayed in popular culture as being used for “evil” and not “good.”

Archived article by Aliza Wasserman