Logo: University of Southern California

CMU Artificial Intelligence Sage Calls for IT for the Bottom Billion

Renowned Researcher Spotlights Areas Where Affordable Ultracomputing Can Change Lives
Eric Mankin
November 23, 2007 —
Raj Reddy, left, and Bekey Lecture series eponym George Bekey
Raj Reddy, the Carnegie-Mellon professor who founded that school's well-known Robotics Institute, delivered the second George Bekey Lecture, on "Technology and Society" November 20 to a capacity crowd of faculty members, including many researchers from the Information Sciences Institute who made a special trip from Marina del Rey to attend.

Ron Rosenbloom, like Reddy a former student of University of Michigan artificial intelligence pioneer John McCarthy, welcomed the audience, and also lecture series "eponym" — Rosenbloom smiled as he offered the word — George Bekey.

Bekey, a longtime friend of Reddy, offered some of the speakers accomplishments, including his membership in the National Academy of Engineering, his ACM Turing Prize, Vannever Bush award and, most recently, CMU's bestowal of the Mozah bint Nasser professorship, named after the Sheikha of Qatar.

Reddy, at the podium, supported his remarks with a PowerPoint presentation containing, in addition to charts and notes, several extensive television stories illustrating CMU examples of the technology.

Reddy noted that, in order to be useful to the billions of people for whom much IT is now out of reach, technology had to be scalable and sustainable, with emphasis on devices cheap enough for even the poor to be able to afford. 

"You can't be bound by charity," he said.

In a fast-moving tour, Reddy identified a series of applications that focus high-tech solutions on everyday low-tech problems, For Viterbi School audience members, one gratifying element of Reddy's lecture had to be the recognition that, in almost all of the fields USC engineers were already heavily engaged.

These included:
  • Assistive robotics, and, specifically advanced prosthesis, designed to help those afflicted with sensory disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and motor disabilities.
  • Rescue robots, able to penetrate devastated or dangerous areas, alert humans, locate casualties during the first 48 hours following a catastrophe, and bringing help. Landmine detection is a special category in this area.
  • Computer based tutoring, individual instruction to teach reading, arithmetic and other skills with lessons tailored to each individual student, systems aimed at helping not just good learners, but problem students.
  • Autonomous vehicles, able to find their way without drivers, or to convey human passengers safely and rapidly on existing highways. One study shows that if just 20 percent of vehicles had steady, radar-guided robot drivers, congestion could be drastically reduced.
  • Information access for the illiterate.  Visual "all-iconic" and audio advanced speech recognition interfaces for phones and other devices, enabling people who cannot read, write or use a keyboard to get needed information and communicate. One estimate is that such interfaces will require 100 times more computer power, which must be delivered at one-tenth the cost.
  • Access to books. Reddy is now working on a project called the million-book project, aimed at making the first million most important works accessible in digital form in multiple languages.

The scientist had one overall note: the necessity for continued research funding "to feed the goose that lays the golden age." No dissent to this could be heard in the hall.