Category Archives: Psychohistory

The picoXpert Story

picoXpert was one of the first (if not THE first) handheld artificial intelligence (AI) tools ever. It provided for the capture of human expert knowledge and later access to that knowledge by general users. It was a simplistic, yet portable implementation of an Expert System Shell. Here is the brief story of how it came to be.

When I was about 10, my grandfather (an accomplished machinist in his day) gave me his slide rule. It was a professional grade, handheld device that quickly performed basic calculations using several etched numeric scales with a central slider. I was immediately captivated by its near-magical power.

In high school, I received an early 4-function pocket calculator as a gift. Such devices were often called ‘electronic slide rules’. It was heavy, slow, and sucked battery power voraciously. I spent many long hours mesmerized by its operation. I scraped my pennies together to try to keep up with ever newer and more capable calculators, finally obtaining an early programmable model in 1977. Handheld machines that ‘think’ were now my obsession.

I read and watched many science fiction stories, and the ones that most fired my imagination were those that involved some sort of
portable computation device.

By 1980, I was building and programming personal computers. These were assembled on an open board, using either soldering or wire wrap to surround an 8-bit microprocessor with support components. I always sought those chips with orthogonality in memory and register architecture. They offered the most promise for the unfettered fields on which contemporary AI languages roamed. I liked the COSMAC 1802 for this reason. It had 5,000 transistors; modern processors have several billion. The biggest, baddest, orthogonal processor was the 16- or 32-bit Motorola 68000, but it was too new and expensive, so I used its little brother, the 6809, which was an 8-bit chip that looked similar to a 68000 to the programmer.

I spent much of the 1980s canoeing in Muskoka and Northern Ontario, with a Tandy Model 100 notebook, a primitive solar charger, and paperback editions of Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy and sequels on-board (I read them five times).

By the mid 1990s, Jeff Hawkins had created the Palmtm handheld computer. The processor he chose was a tiny, cheap version of the 68000 called the ‘DragonBall’. I don’t know which I found more compelling – this little wonder or the fact that it was designed by a neuroscientist. I finally had in my hand a device with the speed, memory, and portability to fulfill my AI dreams.

The 1990s saw the death of Isaac Asimov (one of my greatest heroes), but also saw me finally gaining enough software skills to implement a few Palm designs. These were mainly created in Forth and Prolog.  The Mars Pathfinder lander in 1997 was based on the same 80C85 microprocessor used in the Tandy Model 100 that I had used years earlier. This fact warmed my heart.

In 2001, I formed Picodoc Corporation, and released picoXpert.

Here are: the original brochure, a primer on Expert Systems, and a few slides.

It met with initial enthusiasm by a few, such as this review:

Handheld Computing Mobility
Jan/Feb 2003  p. 51
picoXpert  Problem-solving in the palm of your hand
by David Haskin

However, the time for handheld AI had not yet come. After a couple of years of trying to penetrate the market, I moved on to other endeavours. These included more advanced AI such as Neural Networks and Agent-Based Models. In 2011, I wrote Future Psychohistory to explore Asimov’s greatest idea in the context of modern computation.

Picodoc Corporation still exists, although it has been dormant for many years. It’s encouraging to see the current explosion of interest in AI, especially the burgeoning Canadian AI scene. For those like me, who have been working away in near anonymity for decades, it’s a time of great excitement and hope. Today, I’m mainly into computational citizen science, and advanced technologies, such as blockchain, that might be applied to it.

The Asimovian Epoch

Centuries past are like the long night, a mysterious dream world. The modern, networked Earth is like daybreak, a world-wide awakening.

The fifty years 1945-1995 could be considered as a sort of ‘twilight zone’ between the two. The bulk of thinking and research done during this period is too new to be of any great historical or even deep nostalgic interest. Yet it is too old to be treated as current knowledge in the Internet age, where freshness and novelty are valued. In addition, we are still inside several of the epic transformations that began in this time. It’s difficult to appreciate and comprehend a revolution when you live within it. Our blind spot for this period is a great tragedy.

This period could be called the ‘Asimovian Epoch’. Here’s why.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was perhaps the last great polymath. He was a biochemistry professor and author, publishing (writing or editing) over 500 books (covering 90% of the Dewey Decimal Classification system) and many thousands of shorter works. That’s an average rate of over one book per month over his long career – one of the greatest outbursts of creativity in history. His favorite topics included history, physics, comedy, and English literature. He was quite arguably the greatest science fiction writer of all time. He, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke are known as ‘The Big Three’ of the Golden Age of science fiction.

Asimov was a nexus of 20th century thought.isaac-asimov

He was strongly influenced by Greek and Roman classics, Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, and also by contemporaries such as Kurt Vonnegut, Heinlein, Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Carl Sagan, and Marvin Minsky. He in turn influenced the likes of Paul Krugman (Nobel Prize in Economics), Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), most science popularizers (happily now becoming too numerous to list), virtually all science fiction writers, and of course millions of readers.

Optimism came early to Asimov, perhaps because he spent so much time as a child in his father’s candy store. Many were initially drawn to science as teenagers by his optimistic and compelling vision of science and technology. Given the advances that 20th century science brought, such as space exploration, computation, automation, microbiology, etc, our debt to him on this account alone is inestimable. His masterpiece, Foundation, has deeply influenced many others, including me:  Future Psychohistory

It has become fashionable for some to be suspicious of science and even liberal education. This was a trend that Asimov fought tirelessly against all his life. He warned against
the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’

He went even further, exploring the frontiers of individuality and self-education:
Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.

Some even credit Asimov with predicting the Internet, especially its use for personalized education. He envisioned a world in which people could pursue their own interests, unfettered by the standard classroom, open to new ideas and serendipity.

Ironically, the very technology that he hoped would spur individuality and diversity has the opposite effect at times. One example is digitization and archiving of published material. There was a time when books were expensive, highly personal possessions that stayed with the owner for a lifetime, and were even sometimes handed down across generations. People would store letters, pressed flowers, and other snippets of life between their pages, and write personal margin notes. Books were not just repositories of language, they were time capsules and valuable historical accounts. However, the best book to scan is a pristine, un-personalized volume. Once it is scanned, future researchers use this one version increasingly exclusively. Individuality and diversity are squelched.

A pervasive basic understanding of science was Asimov’s constant goal. He often took the opportunity to describe science not as a storehouse of absolute truth, but rather as a mechanism for exploring nature. Science is not a dogmatic belief system. Learning happens when one asks questions of the universe and then listens attentively and objectively with the ears of science. He wrote eloquently on scientific models, logic, and inference. An example is this essay.

Of course Asimov is best known for his robot stories, and his ‘Three Laws of Robotics’.  In 2010, the U.S. Congress established National Robotics Week in his honor. It’s possible that he saw artificial intelligence as a way for intellect to exceed the bounds of human bias, subjectivity, and mortality.

I never met Isaac Asimov, but I have spoken to several people who did have that pleasure. Each one related the profound impression he made on them. He died in 1992, but his books continued to be published posthumously. By the end of 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium had been founded at MIT. The dramatic rise of the Web marks the end of the Asimovian epoch.

Academia can sometimes degenerate into a vicious paper chase, with Ego in the front seat,
Science in the back seat, and Humanity locked in the trunk. Asimov famously said,

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries,
is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’

Sadly, with hyper-specialization and the loss of interdisciplinary thinkers like Isaac Asimov, the catch-phrase of science has increasingly become: “Oooh! Shiny!”