THE AI EFFECT
We’re all at least somewhat familiar with the idea of artificial intelligence—whether that familiarity comes from the Hollywood boom of science fiction films with an AI focus or the latest sassy response from Siri gone viral depends on your interests.
However, that’s what most of us have in relation to the integration of AI into our daily lives—interest. IPFW Assistant Professor of Computer Science John Licato has made it an integral part of his occupation.
“Humans, at their best, have this ability to simultaneously reason using concepts and reasoning about those concepts. This gives us sort of a flexibility of reasoning that we don’t see in any computer systems—even the most advanced,” Licato says. “I want to figure out how to get computers and robots to reason in that way.”
FINDING THE BASE LINK
Licato started off as many computer science enthusiasts do—he wanted to be a video game programmer.
“I wanted to program the physics and then the AI, which is what got me involved in AI research—I just loved it,” he explains.
Now teaching courses primarily in AI machine learning, Licato spends a lot of his time building up his lab and researching AI and robotics with his students. He guides a team of 10–15 undergraduate and graduate students though research exercises, managing the workflow and ensuring that communication stays open so goals can be met.
“I was looking for a place that could really benefit from an AI program. If you think about the advances that we’ve seen in AI just in the past couple of years, manufacturing and food service industries are already benefiting from robots. We’ve have advances in fraud detection algorithms that can benefit insurance and healthcare industries.
“As it happens, Fort Wayne and this region are centers for all those industries, so this region is really poised to benefit from all these advances in AI. That makes IPFW, I think, an ideal place to do this research.”
A QUESTION OF SENTIENCE
Licato’s research is AI in general, but his specialty is what the experts refer to as cognitive robotics and human level reasoning. There are some things that humans can do that are still outside the realm of possibility for computers, such as the ability to reason from moral and ethical standpoints and to feel empathy. Licato strives to understand why that gap still exists and to see if he can bridge it in a practical way.
“If we think about the kinds of things that humans can do that robots still can’t—for example, I mentioned how we reason and have empathy for each other—we can come up with explanations and arguments for phenomena that we observe. I think—like it or not—we’re in an age where we’re starting to see things like the military deploying automated drones in combat situations. We’re seeing systems like Watson in healthcare environments. When these robots and systems are deployed—and a lot of them already have been—I think we wouldn’t want them to be completely amoral or unethical.
“At minimum, we want them to to have at least some understanding of this human notion of common sense.”
Licato approaches all of his courses in a similar way—with the belief that computer science is a very applied field, there is a lot of theory involved, and the learning becomes more concrete when the theory is applied to a hands-on project.
“What I tell the philosophers is, if you don’t know how to write it in code, then maybe you don’t understand the concept that well. I give [the students] a lot of chances to really implement things and use that in their learning experience. I try to get them involved in research as well, because I think that it really helps add to their overall understanding of what they’re dealing with.”
Licato tries to recruit some of his researchers from the classes he teaches and issued a general call for interest as well. The students selected—both from his class and who responded to the call—exhibited high motivation and, according to Licato, ended up being some of the best students to work with.
“They don’t say ‘no’ to challenges. They’re able to go a little farther, I think. We’ve already had three students within the past year that have gotten into internships—in part because of the research they were able to do here.”
FRAMING THE FUTURE
This year, Licato and his student researchers have been doing sizable foundational work for the road ahead.
“The question becomes how to do these things. It’s not an easy question to answer and that’s why I think this research is very important.”
Licato and his team have been in talks with some industries in conjunction with IPFW. Recently, they met with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership to understand how they could help better satisfy training needs in the region.
“IPFW has been very helpful. I’ve been working with Information Technology Services and they set up a private network just for our lab so we could have our robot communicate by WiFi as it moves throughout the building. Just the fact that we’ve been given this lab space is something that’s been extremely helpful. Everything you see here—the lab, the programed robots—all of it is a direct result of how hardworking the students are and the freedom they’ve been given.
“This is something that the students do—not because they have to for course credit or anything like that—because they’re proud of their research and they want to be able to give back to the community. The fact that we have the opportunity to do all of this is something that I’m proud of.”
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