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An expanded Web version of segments seen on CNN

Computer mimics human brain at Volvo plant

computer February 26, 1998
Web posted at: 11:06 a.m. EST (1606 GMT)

DUBLIN, Virginia (CNN) -- What if it were your job to run the million-square-foot Volvo truck plant in Dublin, while juggling the schedules of 2,300 employees and managing dozens of other tasks?

Because it is so tough to run a complicated assembly line, more companies are relying on computers with artificial intelligence to handle the details.

This intelligence helps a computer find the best solution for every problem with the help of a so-called genetic algorithm program that mimics the human brain's decision-making process.

Watch Rick Lockridge's entire report as seen on CNN
icon 2 min. 30 sec. VXtreme video

The father of genetic algorithms, who helped develop the system, is John Holland, professor of electrical engineering and computers at the University of Michigan.

He told CNN he took his cue from nature: The idea is to "try to use a computer to breed solutions to problems, much as you would breed horses ... to get better horses."

The genetic algorithm program lets a computer make decisions more efficiently than humans.

And that skill is welcomed at the Volvo plant, where the computer has to figure out how to make 10 different types of trucks on the same assembly line, each with customized equipment, while using resources wisely and ensuring the highest quality of the finished product.

Like playing gin rummy

assembly line

"In a way, it's like playing gin rummy," said Jamie Sypniewski of Volvo Trucks North America.

"You only have seven cards. Well, imagine if a human being had 700 cards in their hand. That's the difference between using a computer system that can handle a lot more information and keep track of it -- versus a human being that doesn't have quite that ability."

To tackle the problem of the assembly line, the computer first makes small calculations, such as how many dashboards a two-person crew can install during one shift.

Then the computer takes its best calculations -- its best genes, one might say -- and applies them to bigger decisions, such as how many trucks will roll off the line in one day.

"It's best used in areas where you don't really have a good idea what the solution might be. And it often surprises you with what you come up with," Holland said.

Darwinian process of natural selection
video icon 638 K / 17 sec. / 160x120
QuickTime movie

According to William Calvin, an expert on human intelligence, the computer's decision-making process is reminiscent of a Darwinian process, or a process of natural selection.

Calvin explained that the human brain follows a Darwinian process of natural selection by coming up with many ideas and rejecting those it deems unfit.

This Darwinian selection of ideas is, of course, not always used.

"You don't need that sort of thing to do a lot of things in life. You don't need it to do traditional learning tasks or to learn new words. But you sure need it every time you look in the fridge and figure out what to do with the leftovers," Calvin said.

No computer really thinks

Gary Kasparov

By that measure, experts say, even the smartest of today's computers are pretty dumb.

Holland and several other critics say that is true for Deep Blue, the IBM mainframe computer that defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Deep Blue actually is quite shallow, they say -- just a big number cruncher with nothing approaching intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

"The machine, the program, explores all the options, all of them exhaustively, without any insight, and then picks the one that's best in that investigation," Holland said. (icon 119K/10 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Calvin agrees that computers have yet to demonstrate true artificial intelligence.

"I think that when computers manage to make social interaction with humans, they would be like a super pet. That would be one thing that would be very exciting," Calvin said. (icon 128K/10 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

And even though the genetic algorithm computer may seem intelligent, its inventor admits that it doesn't really think.

Holland estimated that it might take another 30 years to invent a computer that really thinks. But, he said, someone eventually will invent such computers -- and they will probably be smarter than humans.

Correspondent Rick Lockridge contributed to this report.


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