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AI gets its groove back

After decades of start-and-stop, artificial intelligence is being advanced by major computing firms from Facebook and Google to IBM.

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In a related field, Google also acquired several robotics firms, all in the first half of December. These included Boston Dynamics (outdoor robots), Redwood Robotics (robotic arms), Holomni (robot wheels) and Meka Robotics (bipedal robots).

"Google has a sense that AI will have an application not just on the Web but in robotics," LeCun says. "They think it will have an impact in the next 10 years and they have the financial resources to invest that far ahead."

Meanwhile, Google's most public foray into AI to date is its translation page. Instead of having linguists set up translation rules based on dictionaries and grammars, Google acquired millions of documents that had already been translated, and had an AI program look for patterns between the original and translated versions, Muehlhauser explains.

"Previously, even seven or eight years ago, the required computing power would have been too costly," he adds.

   Ray Kurzweil
Natural-language pioneer -- and now Google employee -- Ray Kurzweil speaks at a Fortune-sponsored technology conference in 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

In 2012, Google hired AI pioneer Ray Kurzweil to work on machine learning and language processing projects. And as previously noted, it hired deep-learning pioneer Geoff Hinton in early 2013.

Also in the first half of December, Facebook hired LeCun to head its AI Group, which had been established in September. Just prior to that Facebook had acquired Mobile Technologies, a speech recognition and machine translation firm. LeCun declined to discuss Facebook's AI-related plans, as did Facebook spokespersons. However, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told analysts in October that the idea is to "build services that are much more natural to interact with." The acquisition of Mobile Technologies "will help expand our work in the field beyond just photo recognition to voice."

The future: Human-level abilities?

Assuming future progress in AI technology will match past progress, the technology could produce a machine that can emulate a human being -- eventually. Robin Hanson, a professor at George Mason University, explains that he has made a habit of asking people who have been involved with AI research for 20 years or more what progress they have seen as a percentage of how far we need to go to match human ability.

"They say five to 10%, meaning we have two to four centuries to go," he explains.

During that time, he expects that machines will continue to replace people at about the same steady pace they have been replacing them since the Industrial Revolution. (In 1870 as much as 80% of the U.S. population worked on farms, but today fewer than 3% do -- yet unemployment is not 77%.) The implication is that society will have plenty of time to digest the impact of AI.

But no one can rule out a sudden, cataclysmic breakthrough, he adds Within the next century it might be possible to "port" brain functions to computers, suddenly creating machines as capable as humans for some, or even most, tasks. Assuming the machines are affordable and can be mass produced, the resulting unbounded supply of inexpensive human-capable labor could trigger a revolution on par with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the more recent Industrial Revolution, in which economic performance rose by a factor of 50 or more during a period of time previously needed for it to double, Hanson says. The world economy is already doubling every 15 years, so such a revolution would lead to it doubling every few months.

Anyone with any ownership of the economy could see their wealth balloon until it reached some plateau, but those whose income is from their labor rather than from their investments could see themselves marginalized, like today's subsistence farmers or aboriginal foragers, since they will not be able compete for wages against mass-produced human-emulating machines, Hanson warns.

Others in the AI field are more upbeat about the future. "Things will come to be that we can't think of now -- there will be unexpected revolutions like the Internet," says Patrick Winston, a professor at MIT.

"As the machines become smart, they will make us smarter," agrees Narrative Science's Hammond. "No matter where you are or what you are doing they will get you the information you need, and you will see and hear a richer version of the world." Tapping into a world of information, "everyone will have an augmented memory of everything," he adds.

But, LeCun cautions, "We are still very far from building really intelligent machines." How far? He won't say. "Those kinds of predictions are invariably wrong," he explains.

"The field of AI is trying to understand human-level intelligence, something that took evolution a billion years and more to develop, and it's unreasonable to expect humans to recapitulate that process even in a few decades," adds Jeff Siskind, professor at Purdue University. "That said, I think we're making a huge amount of progress."

Beyond economic impact, futurists have also proposed a singularity, or a moment at which the machines individually or collectively achieve consciousness and turn against humanity. Those in the AI field tend to shrug off the idea.

"We can always pull the plug," MIT's Winston says.

This article, AI regains its footing, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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