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Two AI Pioneers. Two Bizarre Suicides. What Really Happened?
02-12-2008, 11:58 PM,
Two AI Pioneers. Two Bizarre Suicides. What Really Happened?
Using the Internet to Build Their Case for Artificial Intelligence

On the morning of June 12, 1990, Chris McKinstry went looking for a gun. At 11 am, he walked into Nick's Sport Shop on a busy street in downtown Toronto and approached the saleswoman behind the counter. "I'll take a Winchester Defender," he said, referring to a 12-gauge shotgun in the display. She eyeballed the skinny 23-year-old and told him he'd need a certificate to buy it.

Two and a half hours later, McKinstry returned, claiming to have the required document. The clerk showed him the gun, and he handled the pistol grip admiringly. Then, as she returned it to its place, he grabbed another shotgun from the case, yanked a shell out of his pocket, and jammed it into the chamber.

"He's got a gun! He's got a gun!" a woman screamed, as she ran out the front door. The store emptied. He didn't try to stop anyone.

Soon McKinstry heard sirens. A police truck screeched up, and men in black boots and body armor took up positions around the shop.

The police caught glimpses of him through the store windows with the gun jammed under his chin. They tried to negotiate by phone. They brought in his girlfriend, with whom he'd just had a fight, to plead with him. They brought in a psychiatrist — McKinstry had a history of mental problems and had tried to institutionalize himself the day before. After five hours, McKinstry ripped the telephone from the wall and retreated into the basement, where he spent two hours listening to radio coverage of the standoff. Eventually, a reporter announced that the cops had decided on their next move:

Send in the robot.

McKinstry had stolen the gun because he wanted to end his own life, but now he was intrigued. He'd always been obsessed with robots and artificial intelligence. At 4, he had asked his mother to sew a sleeping bag for his toy robot so it wouldn't get cold. "Robots have feelings," he insisted. Despite growing up poor with a single mom, he had taught himself to code. At 12, he wrote a chess-playing program on his RadioShack TRS-80 Model 1.

As McKinstry cowered in the basement, he could hear the robot rumbling overhead, making what he called "Terminator" noises. It must be enormous, he thought, as it knocked over shelves. Then everything went eerily quiet. McKinstry saw a long white plume of smoke arc over the stairs. The robot had fired a tear gas canister, but it ricocheted off something and flew back the way it came. Another tear gas canister fired, and McKinstry watched it trace the same "perfectly incorrect trajectory." He realized the machine had no idea where he was hiding.

But the cops had had enough. They burst through the front door in gas masks, screaming, "Put the gun down!" McKinstry had been eager to die a few hours before, but now something in him obeyed. The gas burned his eyes and lungs as he climbed from the basement. At the top of the steps, he saw the robot through the haze. It looked like an "armored golf cart" with a tangle of cables and a lone camera eye mounted on top. It wasn't like the Terminator at all. It was a clunky remote-controlled toy. Dumb.

Three hundred miles away in a suburb of Montreal, Pushpinder Singh was preparing to devote his life to the study of smart machines. The high schooler built a robot that won him the top prize in a province-wide science contest. His creation had a small black frame with wheels, a makeshift circuit board, and a pincer claw. As the prodigy worked its controller, the robot rolled across the floor of his parents' comfortable home and picked up a small cup. The project landed Singh in the Montreal Gazette.

Push, as everyone called him, had also taught himself to code — first on a VIC-20, then by making computer games for an Amiga and an Apple IIe. His father, Mahender, a topographer and mapmaker who had studied advanced mathematics, encouraged the wüenderkind. Singh was brilliant, ambitious, and strong-willed. In ninth grade, he had created his own sound digitizer and taught it to play a song he was supposed to be practicing for his piano lessons. "I don't want to learn piano anymore, I want to learn this," he said.

Singh's lifelong friend Rajiv Rawat describes an idyllic geek childhood full of Legos, D&D, and Star Trek. One of his favorite films was 2001: A Space Odyssey — Singh was fascinated by the idea of HAL 9000, the artificial intelligence that thought and acted in ways its creators had not predicted.

To create the character of HAL, the makers of 2001 had consulted with the pioneering AI researcher Marvin Minsky. (In the novel, Arthur C. Clarke predicted that Minsky's research would lead to the creation of HAL.) Singh devoured Minsky's 1985 book, The Society of Mind. It presented the high schooler with a compelling metaphor: the notion of mind as essentially a complex community of unintelligent agents. "Each mental agent by itself can only do some simple thing that needs no mind or thought at all," Minsky wrote. "Yet when we join these agents in societies — in certain very special ways — this leads to true intelligence." Singh later said that it was Minsky who taught him to think about thinking.

In 1991, Singh went to MIT to study artificial intelligence with his idol and soon attracted notice for his passion and mental stamina. Word was that he had read every single one of the dauntingly complex books on the shelves in Minsky's office. A casual conversation with the smiling young researcher in the hallway or at a favorite restaurant like Kebab-N-Kurry could turn into an intense hour-long debate. As one fellow student put it, Singh had a way of "taking your idea and showing you what it looks like from about 50 miles up."

In the 60's, people took acid to make the world weird. Now the world is weird and people take Prozac to make it normal.

As a reputed atheist, the reverential nature of his film was surprising, but Pasolini himself said &If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.&

[Image: Copyofsoldier2.jpg]

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