Improving AI Systems with Metacognition

A system possesses robust intelligence if it tends to perform well in both familiar and unfamiliar situations. Humans are robustly intelligent: we are highly effective in most of the new situations we find ourselves in every day. Robust AI systems, on the other hand, remain an elusive goal. While decades of AI research have produced systems that perform as good as (or better than) humans in well-defined and specialized domains, such as playing chess or task scheduling, these same systems cannot function at all outside the narrow set of circumstances they were explicitly designed for. This is the brittleness problem: automated systems break when confronted with unanticipated anomalies.

Two examples eptiomize brittleness in AI systems: (i) a DARPA Grand Challenge robot bumped into a chain-link fence it could not see and then simply stayed there spinning its wheels futilely; and (ii) a NASA satellite turned itself to look in a certain direction as instructed, but then was unable to receive further instructions{even the instruction to turn back{since its antenna was no longer in a direct line of sight. In each of these cases, a modest amount of self-modeling (I should be moving forward; I should be receiving more instructions) and self-observation (I am not moving forward; I am no longer receiving instructions) would have alerted the systems that something was amiss; and even a modest amount of self-repair (attempting random activity) would have been better than staying stuck.

Standard approaches to brittleness, in which it is up to the designer to predict specific, individual anomalies by incorporating extensive knowledge about the world, have not been succesful. Realistic environments have too many contingencies to be enumerated a priori. The issue then is how to design systems that can respond to situations they were not explicitly designed for, and regarding which they do not have explicit knowledge. Our hypothesis is that this ability can largely be captured by a special-purpose anomaly-processor that, when coupled with an existing AI system, improves the latter's robustness. We have created a model of such a processor, which we call the metacognitive loop (MCL). Experiments with several pilots of MCL have met with a significant amount of success, enough to strongly suggest that at its full potential MCL will be a significant advance toward robust intelligence.

  • Matthew D. Schmill, Darsana Josyula, Michael Anderson, Tim Oates, Don Perlis, and Scott Fults. "Ontologies for Reasoning about Failures in AI Systems". In First International Workshop on Metareasoning in Agent-Based Systems, 2007.
  • Michael L. Anderson, Matthew D. Schmill, Tim Oates, Don Perlis, Darsana Josyula, Dean Wright, and Shomir Wilson. "Toward Domain-Neutral Human-Level Metacognition". In Proceedings of the Eighth International Symposium on Logical Formalizations of Commonsense Reasoning, 2007.