AAAI 2000 Travelogue


CAR – Austin


Got in around midnight, courtesy of a high-level low that turned the Midwest into a thunderstorm cauldron.  And courtesy of the United pilots and mechanics, who, since the employee buyout, have been staging a work slowdown because the company’s owners are stupid.


It was 98 degrees.  Dry heat, though.


Austin, like Seattle, has escaped mallification.  High on unique things and places, low on Structure and Starbucks.  Maybe it takes a fairy godmother—a big company beginning with an “M” just over the horizon.  Student and tech culture dominate.  Trendy (and good) restaurants intercrop incubators and clubs.  You couldn’t see Dell and Motorola downtown, but you could feel them. There’s free bus service in the downtown core.  Very little decay.


Every place I go, I take an anti-postcard—a random shot that shows what the place really looks like.  What’s wrong with this photo?  Nothing.  Even caught undressed, Austin looks just fine.  Would I live here?  Yes.



The Radisson was fine, but it was difficult to stay indoors.




Has indoor rock climbing made it to your area?  This gave me a double take—rock climbing for the vertically impaired.  I call the shot ”Little Rock”.



This last shot shows Austin’s big tourist attraction, which you don’t find out about until you get there.  Over one million bats live between the roadway and the concrete in the Congress Street bridge.  During the day, in 120-degree heat with trucks pounding overhead, they peacefully sleep.  At sundown, they stream out through narrow slits in clouds for 45 minutes.


When it became clear that it was getting dark and the bats would be as hard to image as their human counterparts, I took this Monetish shot of the bridge and Colorado river.  What do a million bats eat, I wondered, walking back through clouds of batfood.




Also did the UT drag (as the locals call it).  Wanted to be ultracool, so I wore my WebFirst t-shirt.  If you want one too, contact Sanjay Patel at  But still, no one offered to sell me one of Madonna’s pubic hairs (if you don’t get this, go rent Slacker).  The best weirdness was a poster detailing horrible UT experiments on children.  I was halfway down the list of experiments before I understood the tailer “our arrogance makes this possible.”  Arrogance that I share: I won’t concede that all primates are created equal. I guess this puts me in Magneto’s camp.


CDR – AAAI-2000


Yes, the conference has shrunk.  By about half since its peak in the 80s.  It would have been 100% academics (mostly students) if I hadn’t come. No big vision in the keynote speech this year. The proceedings are down to one volume, which includes the Innovative Apps proceedings, which used to be published as a book and distributed to bookstores.  Also, about half the Innovative Apps were in development—formerly a no-no.  Evidently there weren’t enough deployed apps to make up a conference.


Cool MIT Media Lab Stuff

Last year it was a room with a back-projected virtual dog that would interact with you.  This year it was Terminal Time.  This was a PBS-style history of the world assembled dynamically from over 150 clips.  The system asked the audience questions and got responses via an applause meter.  Then it psyched out the audience class, race, religion and politics, and created a history containing biases to piss everybody off.  The spearheader was an artist who was annoyed at the received-wisdom bias of documentaries (and news magazines, I might add).


First reaction: X-men.  Half the people who saw it wanted an action movie.  The other half wanted a story of gifted children who found a haven in Prof. Xavier’s school.  Double the length by shooting the scenes for both stories, then have the DVD player dynamically assemble a film of normal length that tells the story either way.  Then have the scenes randomly mutate so you never see the story told twice the same way.


Second reaction:  There was another talk by someone from Schlumberger/Paris on the future of wireless and ubiquitous networking.  A European phone smartcard has the power of a Vaxstation.  He envisions the phone replaced with an earplug that does 2-way voice (thru bone conduction?)  The numeric pad goes away; the phone uses voice recognition.  You talk to your appliances; you listen to how close the bus is getting.  (Those of us who walk around talking to themselves and listening to voices are ahead of their time.)


Combine this with Terminal Time, and I see personalized ads whispering in your ear all day,  Which raises questions.


            O When all your personal characteristics are used to manipulate you, do you automatically come to hate yourself?

            O Will your image stored on an EMC be more important to you than your image in other people’s minds?


Research Areas in Brief


The big new thing is ontologies.  OO programmers model the world with is-a and has-a relationships. But if you want to do commonsense reasoning, and mix concretions with abstractions, subtleties creep in. For example. A carrot is an entity.  A carrot is a vegetable, which is an entity.  But a carrot is also food, which is not an entity.  Philosophers have worked out models for this kind of thing. I think this stuff will be really useful.  CYC is available now.  I’m waiting to see the results.


NLP continues to progress.  The chances of correctly parsing a phrase are up from 60% ten years ago to 90%.  But in a 5-clause New York Times sentence, the chances of getting the whole sentence right is.9**5, or about 60%.  For an Allgemeine Zeitung sentence, it must approach zero.  So parsing is better, but still not good enough.  Most of the advances came from tricks (ok, heuristics) that make cognitive scientist’s eyes glaze because they don’t reflect an understanding of natural language.


On innovative application of NL was a e-mail monitor for a brokerage that attempts to detect insider trading, hype and hard sells.


The news in search is better heuristics.  Using a pattern database (like you’d use for evaluating chess moves), in admissible search (like A* and iterative deepening) Korf has completely solved Rubic’s cube.


E-commerce is generating a new field of agents for optimal auctions.  Turns out optimal bidding is hard when there are bundles, for example, a toothbrush is worth 6, toothpaste is worth 0, and both are worth 10.


 Robots were all over the exhibit floor.  It was hard not to trip on one, and vice versa. There was a high school botball contest, search and rescue robots, and robots serving canapés.


Despite the proximity to UT, there was virtually nothing from the qualitative reasoning crowd.



Better Than The Average Bear


On a completely different subject… The NVCMC had a group ride the Saturday after I got back.  As with most motorcycle clubs, it’s mandatory to take a boring posed photo at every event.  I decided to break tradition, bring a camera, and take candid shots. I got some that are better than the average bear.



This was a grab shot like the rest—but check out the composition.



Motorcycles turn even jarheads into kids.




Ric is probably telling his wife that in about an hour I’ll be leading half the club toward Harper’s Ferry instead of downtown DC.