Nilsson in 1987. Photo: Ed Souza / Stanford News Service

Nils Nilsson, a pioneer in artificial intelligence whose groundbreaking work helped lead to today's online maps, died yesterday at the age of 86.

The big picture: Nilsson's work was foundational to several modern technologies. Anyone who has gotten directions online, played a video game or marveled at moving robots has experienced the legacy of his research.

  • Nilsson developed a famous algorithm called A* for finding the shortest path from one point to another, while working at the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International.
  • He helped build Shakey, the first robot that could plan a complex route on its own. Starting in 1966, Shakey wobbled through the halls of SRI by relying on a map and various sensors — much like today's autonomous cars do.
  • He wrote a textbook in 1980 that helped shape a generation's understanding of his field.

Nilsson's navigation work "motivated everything that's in Waze and Google Maps," says Frank Chen, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz who studied under Nilsson at Stanford. "That's pretty lasting influence."

In his 2010 history of AI, Nilsson wrote: "I have participated in the quest for artificial intelligence for fifty years — all of my professional life and nearly all of the life of the field."

  • His quest included the exciting dawn of AI, as well as a period known as the "AI winter" during which investment and interest in the field dried up. That's when Chen took Intro to AI with Nilsson. He was one of about 100 students, he tells Axios — a tiny number compared with the several thousand who today take introductory AI classes at Stanford every quarter.
  • In an oral history recorded in 1989 — winter's coldest hour — Nilsson was undeterred:
"A lot of people in computer science would say, 'Well, AI's intractable, because the problems are all exponential. … ' My point of view about that is that that might be. Posed in that fashion, they may be intractable. [But] people do them."

Now, decades later, one of his biggest contributions is experiencing a resurgence. After a period of unpopularity, a method Nilsson championed — giving an AI system specific rules, rather than having it learn them from data — is thought to be able to take AI to the next level, if paired with new techniques like deep learning.

The breadth of Nilsson's legacy has been reflected on Twitter:

  • Andrew Ng, a Stanford AI researcher, wrote: "RIP to my friend, colleague, and AI visionary Nils Nilsson. Your work on the A* algorithm has improved countless lives. … I will always remember your work, but even more importantly your kindness."
  • Rodney Brooks, the robotics pioneer, wrote: "My 1972 introduction to AI research was his 1971 book "Problem-Solving Methods in AI". Thank you Nils!!! RIP."
  • Judea Pearl, the leading AI researcher at UCLA, called Nilsson "an AI pioneer, and a mentor to many of us since the 1970s. Always encouraging and always insisting on understanding new ideas, and how they fit together in the grand scheme. I will miss him immensely."

Go deeper

Updated 23 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Voters in Wisconsin, Michigan urged to return absentee ballots to drop boxes

Signs for Joe Biden are seen outside a home in Coon Valle, Wisconsin, on Oct. 3. Photo by KEREM YUCEL via Getty

Wisconsin Democrats and the Democratic attorney general of Michigan are urging voters to return absentee ballots to election clerks’ offices or drop boxes, warning that the USPS may not be able to deliver ballots by the Election Day deadline.

Driving the news: The Supreme Court rejected an effort by Wisconsin Democrats and civil rights groups to extend the state's deadline for counting absentee ballots to six days after Election Day, as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3. In Michigan, absentee ballots must also be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted.

31 mins ago - Technology

Facebook warns of "perception hacks" undermining trust in democracy

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Facebook warned Tuesday that bad actors are increasingly taking to social media to create the false perception that they’ve pulled off major hacks of electoral systems or have otherwise seriously disrupted elections.

Why it matters: "Perception hacking," as Facebook calls it, can have dire consequences on people's faith in democracy, sowing distrust, division and confusion among the voters it targets.

Obama: Trump is "jealous of COVID's media coverage"

Former President Barack Obama launched a blistering attack on President Trump while campaigning for Joe Biden in Orlando on Tuesday, criticizing Trump for complaining about the pandemic as cases soar and joking that he's "jealous of COVID's media coverage."

Driving the news: Trump has baselessly accused the news media of only focusing on covering the coronavirus pandemic — which has killed over 226,000 Americans so far and is surging across the country once again — as a way to deter people from voting on Election Day and distract from other issues.