DARPA Wants to Build Computers With 'Common Sense'

Robert Voight/Shutterstock.com

It’s one of the many programs the agency will fund under its $2 billion next-generation artificial intelligence initiative.

Even today’s most advanced artificial intelligence tools lack the common sense that lets humans move through the world, but the Pentagon’s research wing is kicking off a program to instill computers with knowledge people often take for granted.

The Machine Common Sense program, launched Oct. 19 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, will explore multiple methods for teaching computers broad strategies for navigating the world.

Today’s AI tools can only be trained in highly specialized tasks, but through the program, DARPA intends to give the technology a basic, widely applicable toolbox for solving problems. AI with common sense wouldn’t need computer scientists to explicitly tell them, for instance, that gravity always makes objects fall to the ground or living things need food to survive. Like humans, the machine would understand the concepts intuitively.

It marks DARPA’s latest effort to build so-called “third wave” artificial intelligence tools, which are able to apply reasoning and contextual awareness across a variety of different scenarios.

“The absence of common sense prevents intelligent systems from understanding their world, behaving reasonably in unforeseen situations, communicating naturally with people and learning from new experiences,” DARPA wrote in the program announcement. “Its absence is perhaps the most significant barrier between the narrowly focused AI applications we have today and the more general, human-like AI systems we would like to build in the future.”

The program will explore two different strategies for building foundations of common sense into AI tools.

In one track, teams will develop systems for teaching machines through experience, mimicking the way babies grow to understand the world. Using computer models to simulate the physical world, groups would give AI tools an understanding of basic physics, spatial reasoning and the motivations of outside actors.

DARPA is recruiting a separate team to test and compare AI tools against three different areas of cognitive milestones in children ages zero to 18 months old: prediction and expectation, experience learning and problem-solving.

In the other track, groups would create a program that scrapes public websites and databases to ingrain AI tools a set of “broad common knowledge. DARPA intends the software to allow AI tools to answer questions about the real world based on images and natural language.

Research is scheduled to begin June 2019 and last for about four years. Proposals are due Dec. 18.

The program announcement comes as DARPA determines how to best divvy up some $2 billion over the next five years to advance the foundations of artificial intelligence. The campaign, dubbed AI Next, is focused on cementing the U.S. as a global leader in the emerging technology as rivals like China pour billions into advancing their own artificial intelligence economies.

A DARPA spokesperson told Nextgov funding for the Machine Common Sense program will come from that $2 billion pool.