Sensors that can think

Two professors are teaming up in an effort to take a giant leap in artificial intelligence.   UVM Computer Science professors Joshua Bongard and Christopher Danforth have received a $500,000 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to teach sensors how to think.   Sensors are machines that take physical phenomena and turn them into electricity and are ever-present components of most modern technology, Bongard said.     “Anybody who’s got a cell phone in their pocket is carrying a sensor,” Bongard said.    DARPA, the research arm of the US Department of Defense, has funded research since its inception in 1958, backing numerous scientific projects ranging from the creation of the Internet to more recently the design of unmanned aerial vehicles of war known as drones.   DARPA’s newest project attempts to tackle a problematic side effect of sensors: data overload.   As sensors gather more and more information, it has become increasingly difficult for human users to separate out what is relevant from what is not.     “[There are] all those sensors out there that are providing us with huge streams of information but 99 percent of the information that’s coming back is not useful,” Bongard said.   Over the next three years, Bongard and Danforth will work to fix this problem by creating a filtering mechanism that will integrate with sensors in order to make them more refined and ultimately, better machines.    “As we start to deploy more sensors out into the world, we don’t want more and more information; we want the same amount of information, but better focused,” Bongard said.   In addition to teaching sensors what to look for, Bongard and Danforth must also teach them what not to look for.   “The problem is that if you look at a big enough set of numbers, there are an infinite number of interesting patterns in there that just happen by chance,” Bongard said.  “It’s not so much getting something to recognize patterns, but ignoring all the irrelevant patterns. That will be the biggest challenge.”   Bongard said he envisions a future where man and machine will have a cooperative relationship instead of a competitive one.   “If you look at the recent history of technology, you see more technology, smaller technology,” he said, “But it’s less obvious. We are much more tightly intertwined with our technology than we used to be…As smart sensors and smart robots start to appear in everyday life I think it’s going to be the same sort of thing.”