52 ideas that changed the world: 26. Artificial intelligence
AI has wide-ranging applications but some experts are warning of potential ‘pitfalls’
In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the spotlight is on artificial intelligence:
Artificial intelligence in 60 seconds
Artificial intelligence (AI), sometimes referred to as machine intelligence, is intelligence demonstrated by machines, in contrast to the natural intelligence of humans.
AI is the ability of a computer program or a machine to think and learn, so that it can work on its own without being encoded with commands. The term was first coined by American computer scientist John McCarthy in 1955.
Human intelligence is “the combination of many diverse abilities”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica. AI, it says, has “focused chiefly on the following components of intelligence: learning, reasoning, problem solving, perception and using language”.
AI is currently used for understanding human speech, competing in game systems such as chess and go, self-driving cars and interpreting complex data.
Some people are wary of the rise of artificial intelligence, with the New Yorker highlighting that “a number of scientists and engineers fear that, once we build an artificial intelligence smarter than we are, a form of AI known as artificial general intelligence (AGI), doomsday may follow”.
In The Age of Spiritual Machine, American inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil writes that as AI develops and machines have the capacity to learn more quickly they “will appear to have their own free will”, while Stephen Hawking declared that AGI will be “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity”.
How did it develop?
The Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz also represented people’s fascination with robotic intelligence, with the humanoid robot that impersonated Maria in Metropolis also displaying characteristics of AI.
But in the real world, the British computer scientist Alan Turing published a paper in 1950 in which he argued that a thinking machine was actually possible.
The first actual AI research began following a conference at Dartmouth College, USA in 1956.
In 1955, John McCarthy set about organising what would become the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence. The conference took the form of a six- to eight-week brainstorming session, with attendees including scientists and mathematicians with an interest in AI.
According to AI: The Tumultuous History of the Search for Artificial Intelligence by Canadian researcher Daniel Crevier, one attendee at the conference wrote “Within a generation... the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved”.
It was at the conference that McCarthy was credited with first using the phrase “artificial intelligence”.
Following the conference, science website livescience.com reports that the US Department of Defense became interested in AI, but “after several reports criticising progress in AI, government funding and interest in the field dropped off”. The period from 1974 to 1980, it says, became known as the “AI winter”.
Interest in AI was revived in the 1980s, when the British government started funding it again in part to compete with efforts by the Japanese. From 1982-1990, the Japanese government invested $400m with the goal of revolutionising computer processing and improving artificial intelligence, according to Harvard University research.
Research into the field started to increase and by the 1990s many of the landmark goals of artificial intelligence had been achieved. In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a chess champion when it defeated Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov.
This was surpassed in 2011, when IBM’s question-answering system Watson won the US quiz show Jeopardy! by beating the show’s reigning champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings.
In 2012, a talking computer “chatbot” called Eugene Goostman tricked judges into believing that it was human in a “Turing Test”. This was devised by Turing in the 1950s. He thought that if a human could not tell the difference between another human and a computer, that computer must be as intelligent as a human.
Forbes highlights that AI is currently being deployed in services such as mobile phones (for example, Apple’s Siri app), Amazon’s Alexa, self-driving Tesla cars and Netflix’s film recommendation service.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab has developed an AI model that can work out the exact amount of chemotherapy a cancer needs to shrink a brain tumour.
How did it change the world?
AI is already changing the world and looks set to define the future too.
According to Harvard researchers, we can expect to see AI-powered driverless cars on the road within the next 20 years, while machine calling is already a day-to-day reality.
Looking beyond driverless cars, the ultimate ambition is general intelligence – that is a machine that surpasses human cognitive abilities in all tasks. If this is developed a future of humanoid robots is not impossible to envision.
Although, as the likes of Stephen Hawking have warned, some fear the rise of an AI-dominated future.
Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has warned that AI could become “an immortal dictator from which we would never escape”, signing a letter alongside Hawking and a number of AI experts calling for research into the potential “pitfalls” and societal impacts of widespread AI use.