Innovation Coast guest speaker explores historical parallels between flight and artificial intelligence

By Ione Villegas, Innovation Coast Staff Writer

From the sadistic and super-intelligent computer HAL from Stanley Kubrick's iconic film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” to a cautionary tale about scientists creating intelligent machines that outsmart humans in James Barrat's novel “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era,” the public’s perception of artificial intelligence has been largely informed by science fiction.  

Dr. Ken Ford, director and CEO of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) and a world-renowned expert on artificial intelligence, said theorists have decried the dangers of AI for the past 10 years. 

“Over the years, the philosophical conversation of AI has shifted from the impossible to the inevitable to the apocalyptically dangerous," Ford said. “It's no longer about why ‘you can't do it,’ but why ‘we shouldn't do it.’” 

The ethical battle being waged against AI was also deployed against another controversial academic field: AF or artificial flight. At a recent Innovation Coast CEO Roundtable speaker series, Ford presented “On Computational Wings,” a discussion that drew historical parallels between flight and AI. He also discussed research underway at IHMC that is furthering the field. 

Ford said early attempts at flight imitated the behavior and physical characteristics of birds, such as beaks, flapping wings and feathers. The Wright brothers redefined the problem by asking questions about lift, stability and the dynamics of turning in air.

“AI is more abstract than AF, but their histories are wonderfully analogous,” he said.  “Both of these strongly held human ambitions were, for a long time, focused on imitating the biological exemplar…. And, this mistake, in both cases, misdirected these fields.”

Just as a concern with feathers and flapping misdirected early efforts of flight, the “imitation game” of Alan Turing’s test misdirected the ambitions of AI, he said. In 1951, computer science pioneer Turing proposed a thought experiment that would evaluate a machine’s ability to impersonate human intelligence. 

“For the first 40 years of AI, this experiment was in textbooks as the gold standard for the field,” he said. “We spent a lot of time trying to make machines that were indistinguishable from humans and their behavior. We have shifted gears and are now trying to discover laws of thought that are akin to the laws of flight. Just as the laws of flight explained all possible fliers, we are interested in thought apart from its implementation details.”

From guiding self-parking cars to generating movie recommendations on Netflix to preventing credit card fraud, AI programs have become a part of everyday conveniences.  

“Machines are extensions of our curiosity, ambition and intelligence,” he said. “Instead of thinking of computers as our rivals, we should think of them as our amplifier. A way to think of AI is amplified intelligence. "

For the past two decades, IHMC has been advancing the state of the art in robotics and exoskeletons. In June 2015, it gained worldwide recognition when its humanoid robot Running Man placed second in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, an international robotics competition that tested ground robotic capabilities for disaster response.

“Robots don’t have to look like us, but they have to be able to function in our world,” Ford said. 

In October 2016, IHMC was the only U.S. team to compete in the Powered Exoskeleton Race Cybathlon, a sporting event for athletes with disabilities held in Zurich, Switzerland. An exoskeleton is a wearable robot that enables limb movement, and increases strength and endurance. 

Mark Clayton Daniel, a paraplegic, was the pilot controlling IHMC’s Mina2 exoskeleton. He placed second in the competition by maneuvering the exoskeleton through an obstacle race that consisted of six tasks in less than nine minutes. Ford said the new actuator technology that was developed for the Cybathlon will be applied to exercise and rehabilitation devices.  

The latest growing research area at IHMC is focused on optimizing human performance, resilience and safety in extreme environments. 

"We are increasingly interested in studying how to mitigate the risks for humans operating in extreme conditions such as spaceflight, ultra-high altitude flight, and undersea operations," Ford said. "If you can understand how the human body fails in extreme environments, then you learn how to increase resilience and amplify human performance."

The future of AI is not like HAL from the science fiction movie, but it will be ubiquitous, Ford said.

"At IHMC, we take a human-centered technology approach to AI," he said. "We are especially interested in the development of 'cognitive orthotics' — computational systems that leverage and extend human cognition."

If you are interested in joining Innovation Coast where you can participate in member-only events like the CEO Roundtable series, visit To learn more about the research underway at IHMC, visit


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