Earlier this year, David published a book, Blondie24: Playing at the Edge of AI — i.e., artificial intelligence. That’s the broad term for what David and the other Fogels do. (The book explains, in very readable form, exactly how Blondie was developed and how she works. It’s also a good primer on evolutionary computation in general and gives a concise history of the development of artificial intelligence too.) “To date, however, artificial intelligence has focused mainly on creating machines that emulate us,” David writes. “We capture what we already know and inscribe that knowledge in a computer program.”
IBM’s chess-playing Deep Blue is perhaps the best-known example of traditional artificial intelligence. When it beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in the historic match in New York on May 11, 1997, it did so by evaluating 200 million chessboards every second. But while Deep Blue is “intensely good” at chess, writes David, it is “brittle.” That’s jargon meaning “good for only one thing.” It can’t do anything but play chess. It can’t make the first move in checkers. It cannot think for itself. It cannot adapt. IBM merely created “an illusion of intelligence,” in David’s words. “That isn’t what the dream of artificial intelligence is all about.”
Knowledge is a wonderful thing, David avers in Blondie24. “But learning is the key element missing from the majority of efforts in what’s routinely called artificial intelligence.” Programs that cannot learn “have nothing to do with intelligence; they instead merely recapitulate things we already know, just like Deep Blue does. Programs that are incapable of learning will never solve the problem of how to solve problems.”
“Where is the intelligence in an automaton like Deep Blue?” he asks. “A system that never learns, and has no capability of ever learning, does not deserve the description of intelligent.”
He regrets that, 50 years ago, pre-programming became the standard approach to creating artificial intelligence. He thinks the seeming triumphs of expert or knowledge-based systems are shallow, and hubristic.
Blondie, by contrast to Deep Blue, is “robust,” another jargon word, meaning “useful across a broad spectrum.”
True, Blondie can’t play at the master or grand-master level. But she could easily be fitted out to do so — by loading her up, as Deep Blue was, with human expertise. But then what? The point of the Blondie research was not to create the checkers equivalent of Deep Blue. The real trick, “the evolutionary thing,” as David is fond of saying, was to create a machine that is itself intelligent. Not only intelligent, but more intelligent than its creators.
It’s an unsettling notion for many people — that a machine could think of a solution that a human couldn’t. Unsettling, but a reality all the same.
“It’s already happened. Already been done, many times,” says David’s younger brother, 34-year-old Gary Fogel, who received his Ph.D. in biology from UCLA in 1998 and joined the company the same year. He would tell me this in the course of my interviews with all four Fogels over a period of days last December. “Even when you begin with the human expertise in a field, it quickly gets superseded by the computer. The evolution finds something better. Almost invariably the humans don’t know it yet. That’s just the way it is.”
David, Larry, and Gary all defend the notion that the word “intelligence” should not be narrowly defined. Cats, dogs, colonies of ants — yes, even colonies of computer programs — can be intelligent, if you take the word to mean, as David writes, “the capability of a decision-making system to adapt its behavior to meet its goal in a range of environments.”
Following that logic, they argue that the processes of natural evolution and of evolutionary computation themselves are intelligent.
“Evolution is constantly inventing new solutions to problems,” says Gary. Look at the organisms in a kelp forest, he suggests. How do they survive and continue to survive? “There are so many amazing solutions that have been invented by evolution. Look at some of the sea horses. Amazing. Amazing variety. Amazing solutions.”
He compares this process to the scientific method he’s used innumerable times in biology labs. In those instances, he has a set of hypotheses that he is “contending” for a solution. He can see by his experiments how well these hypotheses work on the problem he’s trying to solve. And he saves the best hypotheses and continues experimenting. “And on and on and on. So it’s as if — my father said this back in the ’60s — evolution is a recapitulation of the scientific method. And in that regard I think that the technique itself is intelligent.
“And that’s a leap,” Gary admits. “That’s a little different. And it’s out there. And I’ll stop there.”
Squadrons of pelicans fly into the cove, their pouched bills an ingenious design for catching and carrying fish. On the beach, the lolling sea lions use their chests and finlike feet to gain a few more lengths of sand. To your or my eye, the locomotion looks clumsy. But their anatomy is another adroit adaptation of nature. They visit dry land to breed the next generation of themselves. Living in La Jolla, only a very convinced creationist could doubt Darwin, who revolutionized the study of biology at mid-19th Century with his startling theory that organisms change with the passage of time.
Not far from the cove, at the Natural Selection offices, Eva Fogel buzzes me into the reception area. In 1962, David has told me, the 34-year-old Brooklyn, New York–born Larry, who had already been living and working in La Jolla for several years, was traveling around the world in one direction while the 24-year-old Eva Fogel–to–be was traveling in the other. They met in the Copenhagen airport, where she caught Larry’s eye. The young woman with golden hair must have attracted the notice of countless others, I would realize when shown a photo of her at that age. According to Fogel family folklore, Larry used the following line to strike up a conversation with Eva, who is of Finnish ancestry but who was born in Australia after her parents immigrated there: “I see your Qantas bag, and I haven’t spoken to anyone in English for a very long time. I wonder if you would mind if we chatted.”