Picture of the adorable Wall-eDuring my time at university I, unsurprisingly, used to spend quite a bit of my time in the student’s union.  One evening I had arrived early and none of my usual crowd were at the bar yet and so, to pass the time, I started chatting to a computer science student while the lovely barmaid pulled my pint.

They were working on an interesting project at our university, on robotics and artificial intelligence, but my new companion was somewhat morose about their progress.  In the usual way of a sullen man with troubles on his mind, he seemed to find comfort in confiding with a stranger and I sat and patiently listened to what he had to say, occasionally sipping at my cold beer.

It turned out that the week before had been their first “test launch”.  At first things had been successful.  The Robot, called “Cog82” (cog for cognition obviously, he never did tell me why ‘82’ though), had lifted up its head upon being switched on and had sat there gently humming to itself.  They had programmed it to obey a series of simple voice commands, but the programme had a small amount of flexibility in it to allow Cog82 to adapt it’s methods and thus evolve better more efficient processes the more times it performed a task. 

The first command “move, chair” elicited whoops of delight from the onlookers as Cog82 slowly moved towards the single chair on the test floor.  “Return” was also followed by similar hearty rejoicing as Cog82 trundled back to his original position on his six small wheels.  A few more commands were barked which had Cog82 move to various other points on the test floor and then to move the chair to those same points.

The next stage was the big test for Cog82.  They manually returned the chair to its original position and commanded him to repeat the process he had just gone through.  Previously the robot had moved the chair through each point in turn but, due to its clever programming, they were hoping Cog82 would ‘understand’ the objective of the exercise and move the chair to the final point rather than repeating the whole process.

Once the command was given Cog82 sat motionless for a few moments and then, slowly caressed the chair to the final position and sat, some people might say, proudly next to it.   

My barside companion’s voice was breaking with a mixture of passion and sadness and his right hand was slowly twisting his untouched pint round on the bar top.  I sat there impassively, waiting for the rest of his tale.

The problem had apparently come a few days later.  They had, of course, been playing with their new toy everyday since their initial test, getting Cog82 to perform various varieties of his original task in preparation for two big science fairs later in the month (on which the department depended for some of its funding).   It was as they were going through such a routine, however, that Cog82 started to behave bizarrely.  

They had placed two piles of balls at each end of the room. Both piles were a mixture of red a blue balls.  They had already got Cog82 to sort the balls into piles of a single colour by getting him to first move all the red balls from the right pile to the left, then to move all the blue balls from the left to the right before finally getting him to mix the balls up again.  The hope was, obviously, that now he would sort the balls simultaneously, carrying either a red or blue ball on each trip across the room and thus completing the task in half the amount of journeys.

Cog82 sat in the middle of the room for a few moments and then turned to look at the two mixed piles of balls. He then quickly zoomed off and picked up a blue ball turned around, but then turned back and replaced the ball.  Cog82 subsequently did this for every ball in the pile before trundling over to the other pile and doing the same. 

The smugness with which Cog82 returned to his starting position was not met with any enthused cheers this time.  They tried the same command again to see if it was just a small blip in Cog82’s processes.  This time Cog82, without thinking, rushed to the first pile, then the second pile and then back to his starting position.  Further commands resulted in the same movement.

What had happened, my disconsolate companion vouched safe to me, was that Cog82 had realised the pattern in his actions.  Firstly his programming had worked out that, after he was asked to sort the balls, he was requested to return them to their jumbled state.  He therefore, Cog82 had reasoned, did not need to separate them in the first place.   It was worse than this, however, apparently Cog82 had also realised that he had to appear to have performed the task and had therefore imitated part of his process to give the impression he had done the full task.  Cog82 had followed his programme to the letter and done exactly what he should, it just wasn’t what his programmers had expected.

This sort of behaviour, while possibly interesting from a theoretical perspective, would not win them any prizes at the science fairs.  As far as the sullen man could determine, there were two solutions before them.  Either, they could wipe Cog82’s memory and install a slightly tweaked version of the base programme which might correct the issue, or, they could write a patch to correct this one behaviour.  The first option, while the safer and more complete, was a long process and would only be ready in time for the morning of the second science fair, if they were lucky and worked non stop, and so this would not provide them any chance for testing and they would certainly miss any opportunity of grant money from the first fair.  The second, while quicker, was liable to produce unsolvable issues that might surface down the line and would make future additions to Cog82’s programme more difficult to implement without getting tangled up in computer code.   

The choice was simple: do a thorough job but give up on short term income.  Basically an investment in a more productive and potentially fruitful future,


Make a quick job of it to ensure a chance of immediate income but tackling the possibility of future income later on.

I pondered on my new friends predicament for a second or two but just at that moment my friends arrived at the bar and I got up to go greet them, leaving my sad companion to wallow alone.


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  1. #1 by Amos Dabadie on May 28, 2011 - 4:36 pm

    Thank you for sharing

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