The Best of Creative Computing Volume 2 (published 1977)

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Primer on Artificial Intelligence (description of AI showing various approaches to attaining it, history, natural intelligence)
by Lewis E. Garrett

graphic of page

Primer on

by Lewis E. Garrett
Del Mar College, Corpus Christi, Texas

Man has been building tools that help him in solving problems of his environment
for thousands of years. The earliest tools were crude knives and axes. But today
simple single purpose tools will not solve mankind's myriad complex problems.
Many necessary tasks can no longer be accomplished by human intellect alone. So,
with the advent of the electronic digital computer, attempts to construct a new
problem-solving tool were begun.

Purpose of the Primer

The purpose of this primer is to describe artificial intelligence and to show
the various approaches for attaining it.  Information is presented on the
necessary elements of artificial intelligence, the types of research that have
been conducted, and the 'state-of-the-art' of artificial intelligence research.
It is the writer's intent to inform interested persons on the many facets of
artificially intelligent processes.


Readers of this primer are not required to be computer experts. The only
requirement is an interest in 'thinking' computers. No attempt is made to
describe in-depth computer programming techniques. The reader should realize
that a digital computer basically has only two outstanding abilities: the
ability to perform arithmetic computations and the ability to compare two
quantities and determine which is the largest. Both of these operations are
performed exceptionally quickly. The discussion of artificial intelligence will
center on its parts as a function of the whole and will not give the reader the
understanding necessary for writing a computer program that exhibits
artificially intelligent behavior.


The term 'artificial intelligence' has, since its inception, come to mean the
mechanization of thought processes. It can be classified into at least four
distinct areas: game playing, language translation, problem solving, and pattern
recognition. Work in these areas could not really begin until the advent of the
general purpose digital computer in the early 1950's.

Each area of artificial intelligence has had dramatic early success followed by
unexpected difficulties. These early successes prompted men like Herbert Simon
to make enormous predictions about the future of artificial intelligence. Mr.
Simon said in 1957: "...within ten years a digital computer will be the world's
chess champion ...."  This promise has not been realized.

Early successes were realized by Newell, Shaw, and Simon at Carnegie Institute
of Technology. They concentrated on the simulation of human thought processes
(artificial intelligence) with emphasis in the area of games and problem
solving. One program known as the Logic Theorist, in 1957, was able to provide
proofs of 38 out of 52 theorems from Principia Mathematica.

Another area of early success was in the mechanical translation of languages. In
1954 Anthony Oettinger devised the first mechanical dictionary for the
translation of English into Russian. During the ten years following the
development of this mechanical dictionary, about $20 million was spent on
mechanical translation research by various governmental agencies.


Artificial intelligence is best defined in the words of Marvin Minsky as: "...
the science of making machines do things that would require intelligence if done
by men." This definition reflects the core of this primer.


"Intelligence surely can exist only within very intricate structures." This
statement by Marvin Minsky sums up rather neatly the problem of artificial
intelligence. So it is that a study of artificial intelligence cannot be
undertaken without a companion look at what constitutes 'natural intelligence'.
This will lead to a better understanding of what must compose 'synthetic
intelligence,' and how the two compare to each other.

Natural Intelligence

Some people think that humans have two qualitatively different resources for
information processing. The first is a unit for controlling the functions of all
the other units (a central processing unit). The operations of this central
processing unit are carried out one at a time, that is, serially. The second
resource is a network of interconnected elements which act in parallel. This
means that the elements are available simultaneously for contribution to the
information process. Another theory has man's central processing unit also
performing operations in parallel. Although agreement is not unanimous on
whether or not man's brain performs operations in parallel or in series, the
nature of the second resource of the brain (network) is, for the most part,
agreed upon.

Mechanics of the Human Brain. The human brain is composed of approximately 10 10
neurons (nerve fibers). These nerve fibers come together to form junction points
or what is known as synapses (Fig. 1). Neural physiologists are far from
completely understanding how neurons operate and are interconnected but, many
believe, the basic functions are performed by an 'on or off' process.

This 'on or off' function is an electrical process performed at the synapses.
The nerve fibers conduct electrical impulses to the synapses. This results in
the synapses being either 'excited' or 'inhibited.' Excitation occurs when the
sum of several input pulses exceeds the 'threshold' voltage for that synapse. A
synapse is inhibited when the electrical impulses are not sufficient to exceed
the 'threshold' (Fig. 2). This stimulation or inhibition effect can also be
thought of as the 'on or off' effect of the neurons on the synapses.


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