Computer Creativity Machine simulates the human brain|
By Tina Hesman
Stephen Thaler, of Imagination Engines, Inc., in Maryland Heights, with his cockroach robot named 'H3'.
Technically, Stephen Thaler
has written more music than any composer in the world. He also invented
the Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush and devices that search the Internet
for messages from terrorists. He has discovered substances harder than
diamonds, coined 1.5 million new English words, and trained robotic
Thaler, the president and chief executive of Imagination Engines Inc.
in Maryland Heights, gets credit for all those things, but he's really
just "the man behind the curtain," he says. The real inventor is a
computer program called a Creativity Machine.
What Thaler has created is essentially "Thomas Edison in a box," said
Rusty Miller, a government contractor at General Dynamics and one of
Thaler's chief cheerleaders.
"His first patent was for a Device for the Autonomous Generation of
Useful Information," the official name of the Creativity Machine,
Miller said. "His second patent was for the Self-Training Neural
Network Object. Patent Number Two was invented by Patent Number One.
Think about that. Patent Number Two was invented by Patent Number One!"
Supporters say the technology is the best simulation of what goes on in human brains, and the first truly thinking machine.
Others say it is something far more sinister - the beginning of
"Terminator" technology, in which self-aware machines could take over
Thaler's technology was born from near-death experiences of dying
computer programs. Its foundation is the discovery that great ideas are
the result of noisy neurons and faulty memories.
The invention began to take shape in the 1980s. By day, the physicist
worked at McDonnell Douglas Corp., where he wielded a powerful laser
beam to crystallize diamonds. He built elegant computer simulations,
called neural networks, to guide his experiments.
But at night, things were different. Shirley MacLaine and her ilk were
all over the TV and on magazine covers talking about reincarnation and
life after death and near-death experiences. It made Thaler wonder:
"What would happen if I killed one of my neural networks?"
Neural networks can be either software programs or computers designed
to model an object, process or set of data. Thaler reasoned that if a
neural network were an accurate representation of a biological system,
he could kill it and figure out what happens in the brain as it dies.
In biological brains, the information-carrying cells, called neurons,
meet at junctions, called synapses. Brain chemicals, such as adrenaline
and dopamine, flow across the junctions to stimulate or soothe the
cells. In the computer world, there are switches instead of cells. The
switches are connected by numbers or "weights."
So after work, Thaler went home and created the epitome of a killer
application - a computer program he called the Grim Reaper. The reaper
dismantles neural networks by changing its connection weights. It is
the biological equivalent of killing neurons. Pick off enough neurons,
and the result is death.
On Christmas Eve 1989, Thaler typed the lyrics to some of his favorite
Christmas carols into a neural network. Once he'd taught the network
the songs, he unleashed the Grim Reaper. As the reaper slashed away
connections, the network's digital life began to flash before its eyes.
The program randomly spit out perfectly remembered carols as the killer
application severed the first connections. But as its wounds grew
deeper, and the network faded toward black, it began to hallucinate.
The network wove its remaining strands of memory together, producing
what someone else might interpret as damaged memories, but what Thaler
recognized as new ideas. In its death spiral, the program dreamed up
new carols, each created from shards of its shattered memories.
"Its last dying gasp was, 'All men go to good earth in one eternal silent night,'" Thaler said.
But it wasn't the eloquence of the network's last words that captured
Thaler's imagination. What excited him was how noisy and creative the
process of dying was. It gave Thaler ideas. What if, he asked, I don't
cut the connections, but just perturb them a little?
Thaler built another neural network and trained it to recognize the
structure of diamonds and some other super-hard materials. He also
built a second network to monitor the first one's activities.
Then he tickled a few of the network's connections, and something began
to happen. The tickling, akin to a shot of adrenaline or an electrical
jolt in the brain, produced noise. In this sense, noise is not sound,
but random activity. And the noise triggered changes in the network.
The result was new ideas. The computer dreamed up new ultra-hard
materials. Some of the materials are known to humans, but Thaler didn't
tell the network they existed. Other materials are entirely new,
unknown to humans or computers before.
"A little elbow room"
When Rusty Miller went to lunch one day in 1998, he picked up a
specialized computer magazine called PCAI journal. He flipped through
the pages and came across a story about Thaler and his Creativity
Machine inventing the ultra-hard substances. Instantly, Miller knew
that Thaler had taken a step beyond other artificial intelligence
technologies, such as fuzzy logic or genetic algorithms, he said.
The brilliance of Thaler's invention is the noise he introduces into the system, Miller said.
"Noise allows neurons to have a little elbow room to dream up new ideas," Miller said.
Other researchers have come to the same conclusion.
Good old-fashioned artificial intelligence uses human experts to input
huge quantities of data and a list of rules to create a model, said
Robert Kozma, a computer scientist at the University of Memphis. Kozma
is experimenting with a similar technology.
The rigidity of traditional artificial intelligence technologies holds back creativity, Kozma said.
"This type of rule-based system is frozen. It's dead and cannot get to
the essence of intelligence," Kozma said. "Creativity cannot be derived
in a logical way, in a step-by-step fashion." You need a little noise
to come up with good ideas, he said.
Human brains are also noisy places, said Dr. Walter J. Freeman, a
neurobiologist at the University of California at Berkeley. A debate
has raged for half a century about what the brain does with noise.
Many biologists see noise as a just a nuisance or a necessary evil,
Freeman said. The brain devotes many neurons to the same task so it can
swamp out that random activity, those scientists argue.
But Freeman subscribes to an alternative theory - that noise is
essential for the brain to function properly. Noise provides
variability that allows organisms to adapt to new situations, he said.
Kozma has replaced the brain of a robotic toy dog with this new
technology. The idea is to create a robot that can explore a new
environment, such as the surface of another planet, without human
guidance. NASA is funding Kozma's efforts.
Thaler believes that Kozma's research is derivative of his seminal work.
It's not merely noise that makes Thaler's Creativity Machines so
ingenious, he argues. He has discovered a mathematical equivalent to
the fleeting signals that work on neurons - a special kind of noise.
And Creativity Machines are their own best critics. In fact, they have
critic networks built right in. The critics select the best ideas
generated by the noisy networks and reward good work. The feedback
helps the network dream up even better ideas.
Thaler, too, is engineering independent robots. A glossy, black,
plastic cockroach named H3 could be the prototype for swarms of
bunker-busting robots that could seek out, explore and use collective
intelligence to defeat an enemy target. The U.S. Air Force has
contracted Thaler to create such robots.
Robots, including Mars rovers, have been programmed with artificial
intelligence before, Thaler said. But those robots require human
engineers to program in leg movements and rules for getting around
obstacles. Each unique encounter requires new programming, new rules,
H3 gets no tutelage from Thaler at all. A sonar beacon beckons the
robot, and H3's legs begin to flail. Every time the robot makes a
movement that carries it closer to the signal, it learns the value of
the move. Within a few seconds, the cockroach coordinates enough good
moves to scuttle toward the signal.
But Thaler hasn't stopped with robots. Creativity Machines can solve just about any problem in any field, he says.
A Creativity Machine used two neural networks to study toothbrush
design and performance. A brainstorming session between the two
produced the idea to cross the bristles of the toothbrush for optimal
cleaning. That toothbrush became the Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush.
In one weekend, a Creativity Machine learned a sampling of some of
Thaler's favorite Top 10 hits from the past three decades and then
wrote 11,000 new songs. Some are good, Thaler said. Miller confesses to
being haunted to one of the melodies in a minor key. Other offerings
are the musical equivalent of a painting of dogs playing poker, Thaler
But computer-composed music doesn't have to be bad. Human mentors with
good taste could train a critic network to grade the Creativity
Machine's songs, punish it for bad tunes and reward it for harmonious
melodies. The feedback would hone the machine's composing skills.
Such a self-training system was the Creativity Machine's first invention, and the subject of Thaler's second patent.
Carmakers and security industries want to use machines to identify
obstacles, pedestrians or intruders. Some machines can identify certain
objects, but change lighting conditions or mist the lens with water,
and the system falls apart.
Thaler spins a collection of toy cars, trucks and planes on an old
turntable in his office while a Creativity Machine watches. The
computer learns to distinguish Hummers from pickups and F-18s from
747s, no matter if the object is lit by a searchlight or sits in shadow
or if rain spatters the windshield. The technology could alert drivers
to whether they are about to back over a boy or a bicycle. Battlefield
commanders might use similar technology to assess damage and decide
whether to send in more bombs.
Machines trained to detect dangerous objects could replace humans at
baggage screening stations or watch for suspicious behavior.
Thaler's first contract with the Air Force used a Creativity
Machine to help design warheads that reconfigure the pattern of
shrapnel scattering. That's important to limit collateral damage and to
save money by tailoring bombs to destroy a target in one hit.
Thaler's machines engage in the guilty pleasure of reading
supermarket tabloids. The networks learn how to write tabloid
headlines. The "International Expirer" quickly became a hit on the
Internet. But the computer reporters of the tabloid "have no shame,"
and generated such celebrity-skewering headlines that Thaler removed
the Expirer to avoid libel and slander suits.
Spy agencies want to use Thaler's technology to map the Internet and detect unusual activity.
Thaler coined more than a million new English words by showing a
network a list of words. It learned rules of spelling and pronunciation
and generated new words. In one trial, the network came up with a name
for one of Thaler's spinoff companies - Synaptrix. The words are
nonsense now, but Thaler predicts that companies could use them to name
products. The machine also liked "eggo." Too bad that one is already
The technology is not ready for widespread commercial use yet, say some supporters.
"It's got extraordinary potential. Right now the holdup is packaging
the technology as a tool that somebody can actually pull off the shelf
and use," said Lloyd Reshard, the Weapons Platform Integration Team
Lead at the Air Force Research Laboratory Munitions Directorate at
Eglin Air Force Base. With other artificial intelligence technologies,
"software is commercially available on the street, but if you want to
apply a Creativity Machine to your problem, there's no software package
you can go out and buy."
The Air Force is working with Thaler now to solve that problem, Reshard said.
"I might lose my job"
All of the possible applications for Creativity Machines make some
people uneasy. The machines could easily supplant people for many
mundane jobs, and Thaler predicts that some traditionally human-only
jobs, including laboratory scientist, could be up for grabs. Computer
chemists could soon design new compounds and figure out how to make
The machines could even be used to solve pressing societal problems, Thaler says.
The prospect is just too much for people who see machines as a possible threat to humans.
The normal human response is, "Don't want it. No thanks. I might lose my job," Miller said.
Or worse, sentient machines could decide that they don't need humans at
all and do away with people. That fear is fueled by the plots of
science-fiction movies, such as "The Terminator." In that movie, a
satellite called Skynet became self-aware, saw humans as a threat and
destroyed more than 3 billion people.
Sci-fi fans see similarity between Thaler's thinking machines and
Skynet. There's even an eerie coincidence between the fictional
satellite's Judgment Day - August 29, 1997 - and the date the patent
for Creativity Machine became final - August 19, 1997.
But Thaler doesn't see the world ending at the hands of the machines.
"I can never imagine a world that looks like 'Terminator.' What do
people want? Food. Land. Mates. Machines aren't interested in that,"
Miller, who is in the business of protecting U.S. computers from
foreign attackers, agrees that machines are not the real threat. He
worries more about humans with malicious intent turning Creativity
Machines into weapons. Other countries are already studying U.S.
patents and experimenting with revolutionary technologies. Terrorists
could follow suit, he says.
"If the U.S. doesn't wake up and pay attention, we're going to get
smoked," Miller warns. "It's important for people to understand. It
doesn't have anything to do with the business of business. It's about
Some people are threatened by the idea that machines could think like
humans, Kozma said. They don't like the idea of computers out-creating
humans, he said.
But Thaler's machines may never match the unique qualities of humans,
no matter how clever they are at designing toothbrushes or warheads,
Miller, a former ballet dancer and Green Beret, says he enjoys
competing against Thaler's neural networks, even when they beat him.
Miller will always have a toe up on the machines, he says.
"None of his computers can do ballet."
Reporter Tina Hesman
Name: Stephen Thaler
Born: St. Louis
High school: University City High School
Undergraduate: Westminster College, graduated summa cum laude with majors in chemistry, mathematics and Russian
Graduate: University of California at Los Angeles, master's degree in chemistry
University of Missouri at Columbia, Ph.D. in nuclear physics
Company: Imagination Engines Inc.
Personal: Married to Karen Thaler, no children