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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."

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  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong puts tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge — Pfizer to supply 40 million vaccine doses to lower-income countries — Brazil begins distributing AstraZeneca vaccine.
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DOJ: Capitol rioter threatened to "assassinate" Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Supporters of former President Trump storm the U.S. Captiol on Jan. 6. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A Texas man who has been charged with storming the U.S. Capitol in the deadly Jan. 6 siege posted death threats against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the Department of Justice said.

The big picture: Garret Miller faces five charges in connection to the riot by supporters of former President Trump, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds and making threats. According to court documents, Miller posted violent threats online the day of the siege, including tweeting “Assassinate AOC.”

Schumer calls for IG probe into alleged plan by Trump, DOJ lawyer to oust acting AG

Jeffrey Clark speaks next to Deputy US Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen at a news conference in October. Photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Saturday called for the Justice Department inspector general to investigate an alleged plan by former President Trump and a DOJ lawyer to remove the acting attorney general and replace him with someone more willing to investigate unfounded claims of election fraud.

Driving the news: The New York Times first reported Friday that the lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, allegedly devised "ways to cast doubt on the election results and to bolster Mr. Trump’s continuing legal battles and the pressure on Georgia politicians. Because Mr. [Jeffrey] Rosen had refused the president’s entreaties to carry out those plans, Mr. Trump was about to decide whether to fire Mr. Rosen and replace him with Mr. Clark."