Amazon’s surprise bestselling tech product for the 2016 holiday season was the Amazon Echo; sales are 8 times more than the 2015 holiday season. A voice controlled wireless speaker that can stream music from Amazon and other music services, Echo features Alexa, Amazon’s own version of the jinni in the bottle. Alexa is rapidly morphing into a multi-featured “digital assistant”, one of many such intelligent or smart artifices offered today.
While the Antikythera mechanism, an analog computer, was constructed circa 125 BC, the notion of artificial beings capable of thought was the stuff of myths, stories and rumors in antiquity. The term “artificial intelligence” or “AI” was coined in 1956 by John McCarthy, professor of computer science, marking the birth of modern AI research and development. Today we are literally surrounded by surrounded by “Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI)” devices, routinely performing carefully defined tasks such as making automated phone calls, filtering email messages, tracking your shopping or internet habits, guiding your automobile travels and tirelessly working in industrial robotic assembly lines.
Experience is enabling impressive advances. Sense.ly, a startup company, is marketing a “solution” to monitor home health care for common chronic illnesses remotely with an interactive AI virtual nurse providing daily “visits.” Self-driving cars and long haul trucks are just over the horizon. Machines are beginning to actually learn from experience using deep learning techniques and neural network circuitry. Notions that were first envisioned in science fiction stories are now becoming reality.
Mergers, acquisitions and investments in AI are consolidating companies and intensifying research in implementing AI applications. Manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, finance and customer service industries are all preparing for transformative changes. Last September, IBM, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon became founding members of a new industry association called the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence. Their stated goal is to “study and formulate best practices on AI technologies, to advance the public’s understanding of AI, and to serve as an open platform for discussion and engagement about AI and its influences on people and society”.
How close are we to creating a machine that could successfully perform intellectual tasks as well as a human being? Past estimates of impending success have repeatedly proved to be overly optimistic, with some researchers proclaiming that human intelligence is too complex to be completely replicated in the near term by an artificial general intelligence (AGI). Consensus in the small AGI research community seems to be that sometime between now and 2045 AGI is plausible, while most mainstream AI researchers doubt that progress will be this rapid. Combined polls of artificial intelligence experts in 2015 estimated a 25% chance that AGI will arrive before 2030, but a 10% chance that it will never arrive at all.
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” — Alan C. Kay, pioneering computer scientist and Turing Award winner