In our modern world, the prospect of highly intelligent robots that are able to mimic human beings is no longer just a science fiction fantasy.

Professor Bruce MacLennan presented “Artificial Intelligence: Present and Future Prospects” Friday at 12 p.m. in Thompson-Boling Arena Café A. MacLennan is an associate professor in the University of Tennessee’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

MacLennan’s presentation, the most recent installment in the UT Science Forum, lasted for an hour, and the talk was highly attended by university students, as well as professors.

MacLennan touched on multiple thought provoking topics. He spoke about Arthur Samuel, who worked at International Business Machines. In 1952, Samuel created a machine that could play checkers and improve its own performance. By 1959, the machine was able to defeat the best checkers players in the country.

MacLennan explained that one of the most essential parts of humanity is our ability to communicate, a feature that robots often attempt to mimc.

“The essence of the human mind is our linguistic ability,” MacLennan said.

Tasks that are basic and easy to humans are the most difficult ones for artificial intelligence robots. At the presentation, a video clip was shown of AI robots trying to complete basic human functions, like open a door or just simply walk. The AI robots would fall over just from basic movements.

However, in other instances AI machines are able to complete more complex movements. During the presentation, there was a clip shown of robotics company Boston Dynamics’ “Atlas” robot able to do somersaults.

The talk analyzed the debate about if artificial intelligence robots should have rights and what that would mean. There was also discussion about if AI machines should be programmed to have emotions.

As for humans, emotion is often viewed as a necessity. For example, human beings who express emotions but cannot truly feel them are sometimes identified as psychopaths. So what does this make AI robots if they can express emotions, yet not truly feel them?

MacLennan explained that it was these deeply philosophical debates, not just an interest in technology, that drove him to study AI robots.

“I have been working on AI for about 35 years. It was really when people started talking about studying the brain. I’m interested in it, not just because of its technology, but its connection to philosophy, psychology, neuroscience. It has linguistics; it has connections to all of these areas,” MacLennan said.

Another interesting topic discussed was how artificial intelligence has the ability to complete automatic image captioning. AI machines have a different relevance priority than humans, so the way they view images are very different than the way humans do.

For example, an image was displayed of an airplane extremely close to a road, obviously about to crash. The AI machine captioned the image “an airplane is parked on the tarmac at an airport.”

Amanda Womac, UT Science Forum president and director of communications for the College of Arts and Sciences, explained that she greatly enjoyed the talk.

“I thought the presentation was absolutely fascinating. I think thinking of artificial intelligence on the level of emotional complexity brings up a lot of issues,” Womac said.

Womac added that she was particularly intrigued by the way MacLennan ended the presentation.

“I love the slide he ends on. The computer aids us to obey, but for the first time we have to know thyself in order to understand what we're getting into. It raises a lot of philosophical questions, even though AI is rooted in engineering. It brings in the basic understanding of humanity and what it means to be human,” Womac said.

For more information, you can contact Amanda Womac, at

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