A decade ago, the ability to issue instructions to your cellphone by voice and have it actually respond to your commands, was the stuff of science fiction. Today, it’s a standard smartphone feature. But what will the artificial intelligence (AI) in our pocket be capable of in future? And how do the companies vying for dominance make their AI not just smartish, but smartest? Online advertising used to be the be-all and end-all for digital companies.
It’s still the primary source of revenue for Google, Facebook, Twitter and company, but there’s a new land grab on the go. Hardware and software companies alike are racing to create an AI so accurate, astute and responsive it could either make our lives unprecedentedly easy and leisure-filled, or see us enslaved by the resultant robotic overlords, depending which pundits, naysayers or film franchises you choose to believe.
Luminaries like Stephen Hawkins and Elon Musk fear AI could mean the end of humanity as we know it, because creating an artificial intelligence greater than any human one seems to them likely to prompt said intelligence to do the only smart thing: namely dispensing with our destructive and fickle species immediately. Optimists, meanwhile, imagine an idyllic future where humans are spared mundane and tedious tasks thanks to ubiquitous and cheap machines smart enough to do them for us – but not smart enough to get fed up with their lot, presumably.
There’s a good chance both sides overstate their case. Like most technology, AI isn’t the sort of thing that goes from conception to reality overnight. Instead, it’s emerging gradually from other, building-block developments like the digital assistants in our smartphones and computers, and the sensors that help us park our cars, land jumbo jets and put probes on celestial bodies beyond the one we inhabit. But recognising a concrete pillar as an obstacle is different from recognising it as a load-bearing architectural element.
AI still struggles with things like context, ambiguity and recognising images. The solution? Systems that can teach themselves. Microsoft’s CaptionBot lets you feed it images and tries to work out what’s in them. Following in the footsteps of Deep Blue and Kasparov, Google’s AlphaGo recently beat a human Go champion. But CaptionBot isn’t particularly adept yet, and AlphaGo isn’t any good at backgammon.
Microsoft’s Tay chat bot, meanwhile, had to be taken offline mere days after launch because its responses to human users from whom it was meant to learn rapidly, descended into racist drivel. The task of shifting AI from a useful, but at times clumsy, addition to our digital lives to a self-aware entity remains, perhaps blessedly, Herculean. But there are plenty of fine minds trying to whittle it down to more manageable, and potentially lucrative, chunks.