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Artificial Intelligence

An Artist Built an Exact Replica of Artificial Intelligence's Birthplace

Robotics artist Daniel Pillis recreated AI founders’ Allen Newell and Herbert Simon’s workspace in his own Carnegie Mellon office.

by Sean Neumann
12 June 2017, 12:52am

In an office at Carnegie Mellon University, relics from the founding fathers of artificial intelligence aren't rotting away or collecting dust. Instead, they're put on show as part of an installation that takes the lifework of original AI scientists Allen Newell and Herbert Simon and brings it to life within the very technology they dedicated their lives to creating.

"This is kind of like a history room," says artist Daniel Pillis, who spent three years researching and creating the installation. Pillis's interest in the history of robotics and artificial intelligence began to really take off when he started graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University in 2012. He's now a visiting researcher and artist-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute.

The installation is based of Newell and Simon's original office space, which Pillis replicated through physical archives and oral accounts of the room from former Carnegie Mellon employees. The recreation features minute details about the way the scientists worked from the 1950s through the 1980s as they created the building blocks for artificial intelligence technology, featuring things such as Simon's standing desk workspace with actual chairs he used and messy piles of papers, which Newell was known to keep around his work station. Pillis also included a mold of Simon's hand, which was originally made in the 1990s.

Pillis also designed an interactive application that has the entirety of Simon and Newell's archives in a 3D space, which visitors can search through, experiencing the scientists' research first hand through the digital archive. The archives, which Pillis discovered in the university's library, range from work they did in the office which was the basis of artificial intelligence all the way to drawings of dinosaurs that Simon, a future Nobel Laureate (1978, Economic Sciences), drew in grade school in the 1920s. There's also an augmented reality interface where visitors can use the workstations through iPad simulations when they're in the office.

"They invented thinking machines and I tried to make these machines that had their thoughts in them in the way that people could basically embody them—to go into their space and go into their thinking was the goal of the installation," Pillis says. "I was trying to think of a way to basically talk about human identity and consciousness as an object-situated experience, which comes from a lot of their theories about the human mind and the idea of a thinking machine."

Pillis even included an audio file of Apple Talk reading aloud writings from their research. "It was a way for them to come out of their machine," he says. "The idea of knowledge and technology is that it de-centers identity. When you sit at a computer, you're given the possibility to do anything that the computer can do, so when you have the technology of the computers they used and you have new people standing at them, it's a beautiful breakage in history as a static continuum."

The beauty of the science, Pillis says, is what made creating the installation and researching the lives of Newell and Simon so fascinating. By creating the installation and transferring the scientists' work on to artificial intelligence-based technologies, the artist says Newell and Simon's work has come full-circle.

"They became their machines and they became their information," Pillis says. "As much as they were humans, they were humans who were very invested in making a machine human-like. People were able to interact with them in a way that I thought was intimate through the technology and the information that (Newell and Simon) created." See more of the works below.

Pillis' installation is now closed, but you can still visit a virtually interactive experience of Newell and SImon's office space online here.

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