On Monday, I posed this riddle:

I thrive in gardens and in war.
I’m what drunk drivers oft ignore.
I am a thing no man can hear,
yet light a fire and I’ll appear.
When cherries rot, I also die.
I can’t be felt – but what am I?

Longtime blog reader momenteye asked an excellent question:

How would an AI approach solving this riddle?

Let’s talk about that!

Of course, I’m only going to tell you how my model of an AI would handle this. There are a million approaches to artificial intelligence, and I don’t claim to have the only right answer. The AI I’m building is named Procyon. What would Procyon do with this riddle?

We’ll start by asking: why is Procyon trying to solve this riddle in the first place?

At his most basic level, Procyon has two main impulses: seek pleasure and avoid pain. That may sound crude or hedonistic, but it’s only the foundation of the mind, not the mind itself. Humans are, I believe, built on the same foundation. Ideas as varied as pacifism, fascism, Zen, and even sadomasochism all derive, I think, from these two basic impulses.

(In a philosophy class, we might stumble now into a debate about the definition of “pleasure,” and whether the concept is really meaningful, etc. Fortunately, in an AI, it’s much simpler. “Pleasure” is what happens when this variable right here is set to True.)

The point is, Procyon isn’t working on the riddle because some high-level directive tells him that riddles are fun. He’s doing it because this kind of thing has brought him pleasure in the past. (And if it hadn’t, then he wouldn’t care about riddles.)

Similarly, his approach to figuring out the riddle doesn’t follow some crystal-clean logic that starts with a set of Riddle Axioms and derives an answer. Formal logic is good for a lot of things, but as a foundation for intelligence, it sucks.

Instead, Procyon compares his situation with similar scenes from his past. In effect, he’s asking, “When I’ve come across puzzling textual questions before, what did I do? Did I like the way that approach turned out? Then I’ll try to apply it here.” Though of course he may not explicitly think in those terms.

So how would Procyon solve it? The answer, like so much else, is simple but maybe unsatisfying: it depends. His approach will be based on whatever’s worked in the past, not on any pre-defined rules for Figuring Things Out. Kind of like how humans operate.

This strategy, which I’ve breezily summarized, turns out to be fiendishly complex in practice. When I talk about “similar scenes from his past,” for example, what do I mean by “similar?” How do I define a “scene?” What does this comparing his situation entail? And how does he “try to apply it here?”

As generations of AI researchers have learned the hard way, the devil is in the details. Just explaining my own approach to these questions would take a full-length book, and I’m still far from having all the answers. Likewise, Procyon in his current state is far from having any concept of what a question is, much less a riddle.

But he’s getting there, a day at a time. And so am I.

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