My Life With AI—Part I: Early Geekdom

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The lure of artificial intelligence (or “AI”) enticed me. But let’s not get ahead of the story.

For reasons that aren’t important right now, I spent my high school years channeling my inner Spock. Relying on logic to drive your life rather than the vicissitudes of emotion made things quite amazing. Today we’d call it going down rabbit holes. Back then, I merely explored wherever my curiosity took me.

“Hold on!” you’re saying, “isn’t ‘curiosity’ an emotion?”

Well, some psychologists might agree, (see Litman, “The Measurement of Curiosity As a Feeling of Deprivation,” Journal of Personality Assessment, 82(2), 147-157). Spock merely uses it as a statement of fact. In Episode 26 of Season 1, “Errand of Mercy,” in Star Trek—The Original Series, he says, “It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.”

There is an intersection between Litman (who says curiosity is a “motivation”) and Spock’s use of the term. Think of what happens when you hear a strange noise on the other side of the house. Yes, it might frighten you (which is certainly an emotion), but it also makes you curious. That curiosity motivates you to explore the source of that noise.

That search isn’t an emotional response, it’s a logical one. You want to determine if the cause of that noise represents a clear and present danger to your well-being. Self-preservation is rational, although we have developed emotions to help us achieve the goal of staying alive.

But, while all noises may startle us, we don’t always get up and check them out. Why not? Because, once we get over our initial emotion, our mind analyzes the likely source of the noise and assesses the potential peril we might be in. Curiosity only motivates you so far. The bar is high for getting up off your comfortable couch to venture into the unknown sounds emanating from the deepest, darkest corner of your basement.

Bypassing the obvious next move to discuss the relevance of heuristics and intelligence, let’s move directly to the subject of artificial intelligence.

What do I know about this? Enough to be dangerous. (Does that make you curious?)

That happens when you spend your teenage years being a disciple of Mr. Spock. I wasn’t the only one. There weren’t many, but there were a few of us at Gates-Chili High School. To keep us out of trouble (or to keep us from being beaten up), the math teacher knew what to do. He shunted us aside during normal study hall into a windowless cubby-hole of a room that needed air conditioning.

It was the “computer” room. One of the first of its kind in that era of where such equipment was “hardly very far ahead of stone knives and bearskins” (those of you who know, know what I’m referencing). It was in that tiny room that I first learned the joys of programming in BASIC (and playing a Star Trek computer game based on an array of matrices).

Things at home weren’t much different. My brother and I, dazzled by this new invention called an electronic calculator, begged our parents to buy one. My father refused, but not because of the cost. It was because, years before Moore’s Law would become a reality, he had an intuitive feeling that the devices would quickly become more powerful and cheaper. (Hmm, maybe it was the cost.)

Instead of an expensive calculator, I got a cheap RadioShack computer for Christmas. No, it wasn’t a TRS-80. That was still years away. Rather, it was a box of parts. I had to build the computer. And this was in the days before they let civilians play with silicon chips. I literally had to wire all the circuits. But I got it to work.

And by “work” I mean this computer could add two single-digit numbers (as long as the sum did not exceed that single digit). When I showed my parents the fruits of my labor, my father smiled and said, “You wanted a calculator. Now you have one.”

Not quite, though he was right about not wasting the money on buying the calculator. By the time I graduated, HP had come out with its third generation, which included the HP-31E Basic Scientific Calculator. This is the one I brought to college with me. This is the one I never used in college because the math, physics, and astronomy courses I took all used formulas with letters instead of numbers. It figures.

I took one programming course (“FORTRAN,” as opposed to today’s “Fortran”), but that was more for fun than anything else. Ironically, it helped me land my first job (a story that does involve a TRS-80 which I wrote about a few years back).

During that first job, I picked up COBOL (“on the streets” as I liked to say) by reverse engineering previously installed programs. I had to do that because the math was a bit off on one of them. I added a FORTRAN subroutine, and that improved things.

The real challenge, however, was what I did next.

First, let me take a step back. I wasn’t hired to be a programmer. Even as my position developed, it never included the job of programming. I was more of a systems guy. If you’re in IT, you know the difference. In fact, the first person responsible for doing programming at my firm was the first person I hired. No, my trek into the world of programming was more like one of those “because it was there” stories. You might say I was curious.

That curiosity took a fascinating turn in 1987. That is, before the market decided to take its own fascinating (down) turn. I was in the New York City office installing the remote network. Those things were pretty new for small firms like ours. Testing involved a lot of rebooting. That meant a lot of downtime. Since I hated downtime, I took to talking to one of our veteran securities analysts.

At the time, there was a investment adviser called BatteryMarch that made a big splash in the financial press about using computers to pick stocks. The analyst mused about how in the future a computer could do what he was doing. I suggested the future might be closer than he thought.

Within a month, I gained sufficient knowledge of C++ to build the database. But that database was only the first small step. The next one would be a giant leap.

Next Week: Searching for the Holy Grail.


  1. […] the difference between AI and traditional computing? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “My Life With AI—Part I,” to get the first part of this […]

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