Monday, March 31, 2008


Writing artificial intelligence is a lot like being a parent. It requires an unbelievable amount of work. There are utterly frustrating times where your children (or bots) do completely stupid things and you just can't figure out what they were thinking. And there are other times they act brilliantly, and all the effort feels satisfying and well spent.

Fascinatingly enough, people rarely ask the question of whether being a parent is worth the effort. There's an implicit belief that once you grow up and get married, you should have children. It's like the option of not having children doesn't exist. And of course once you do have children, you must do everything in your power to raise them as well as you can. Questions of whether becoming a parent is good idea, or how much time should be invested in children rather than your spouse are discouraged if they are even asked.

Now I'm not suggesting that parents shouldn't spend a lot of time parenting. Once you've committed the next 18 years of your life by having a child, it seems like you should live up to the responsibility you create for yourself. I'm just wary of people claiming there's only one answer when they aren't even asking the question. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason might cause you to do wrong thing later, as situations change. A good example from parenting would be an overt amount of hand-holding once your child goes off to college. If you always believe you should give 100% to help your kids no matter what, you might end up doing their laundry and cleaning their room when they turn 25. Certainly the purpose of parenting is to turn children into adults, and at some point good parenting involves letting your child being an adult. So the core question of, "Is it worth the trouble to have children?" is a real question, and the answer isn't always yes, although many people assume it is.

What seems strange to me is how people answer the related question, "Is it worth the trouble to program good AI?" And they almost universally say, "No". There are countless games where the AI overtly cheats to win-- pretty much every real time strategy game. Almost every first person shooter to date has had massive problems navigating around a level, Quake 3 included. Most squad-based AI is exploitable by any player who has encountered it a reasonable number of times. And the solution of heavier scripting might make AI seem more realistic when first encountered, but it's far less realistic every other time. Companies resoundingly see little financial benefit in creating genuinely good AI.

I find these answers very much at odds with each other. Writing good AI requires more intelligence than raising a child well, but certainly less time. Moreover, good scientific research results are never lost. They can built upon for centuries. They still teach Newtonian mechanics in colleges, even though we know Newton was technically incorrect (but close enough for most practical purposes). There is a lot of potential long term value in designing good AI, even if the short term profits aren't there. Similarly, the cost of raising a child these days is easily over $100,000. That's a huge short term investment that, quite frankly, never pays off for a lot of children in long term societal benefit.

The real conclusion is that economic and scientific valuation have almost nothing to do with the actual choices people make. When someone says, "Is it worth it to raise children?" or a company asks "Is it worth it to make good AI?" they are using different definitions of worth. The company wants to make money but the potential parent wants to enjoy life.

People don't do what makes them the most money. People do what they love!

Why are there over six billion people in this world? Because people are genetically programmed to love having children. The existence of hormones that encode these feelings of love doesn't make the love any less genuine. Children require effort, but the love for children overrides the dislike of effort (for most people, at least). Without the love of children coded into the DNA of humanity, good parents might become as rare as AI programmers. There's not a lot of people who love designing AI.

Of all the things I have learned designing AI, the most important is this:

Find what you love doing, then do it.

That said, there are surely people who would love life more if they didn't have children. And there are companies that make money by writing good AI. I would love to see more people enjoying life, even if that means going against societal trends and not having children. I would also love to see more companies making money by writing good AI. Not every company can or should do that, but I believe there's room for advancement in both areas.


Dave Mark said...

Nice point. I actually followed up on the idea just a bit over on my blog.

I'm subscribed now, btw. I'm also looking forward to delving into your BrainWorks project.

Ted Vessenes said...

In some sense, Artificial Intelligence is about intelligence, and that means there are good analogies between AI and anything that requires thought and planning.

For example, AI is a lot like cooking, driving, shopping, building a house and planning a vacation too. What's really interesting isn't so much that parenting is like AI, but HOW parenting is like AI. Because it's similar in a different way than cooking is like AI.

At the risk of channeling the spirit of Claude Levi-Strauss too much, I'll leave the analogy of analogies there. But this isn't the last post about how AI is about daily task X.