Artificial Intelligence, or AI as it is affectionately termed, is affecting all of our lives today and will be incredibly important in the future. It is not however about to replace the global workforce or wipe out humanity, instead AI is all about enhancing lifestyles and taking over the more mundane tasks that we face on a daily basis.
AI is naturally receiving an extremely high level of coverage in the media with the current boom being driven by a breakthrough in an area termed as 'machine learning'. This involves 'training' computers to perform tasks based on examples, rather than relying on programming by a human. A technique called 'deep learning' has made this approach more powerful.
For most of us the most obvious influence of AI can be seen with the almost daily advancements with the devices we use such as smart speakers (i.e. Amazon's Alexa) or being able to unlock your iPhone via facial recognition. However, AI is also poised to reinvent other areas of life such as healthcare - in India, hospitals are testing software that checks images of a persons retina for signs of diabetic retinopathy, a condition frequently diagnosed too late to prevent vision loss. Machine learning is also key in projects developing autonomous driving where it allows a vehicle to make sense of its surroundings.
A brief history of the development of AI
The term was first used by Dartmouth College Professor, John McCarthy in 1956 when he invited a small group of equally minded scientists to consider how to make machines do things such as using a language. He later admitted that he was overly optimistic with his ambitions but the workshop helped to galvanise researchers to develop his ideas further.
Early work revolved around solving problems in mathematics and logic but it was not long before AI started to show promising results on more human tasks. In the late 1950's, Arthur Samuel created programs that learned to play draughts and in 1962 one managed to beat a master at the game. in 1967 a program called Dendral showed it could replicate the way chemists interpreted mass-spectrometry data on the makeup of chemical samples.
Over time as AI developed, different strategies were employed to make smarter machines. Some tried to convert knowledge into code or develop rules for tasks such as understanding language. Others built systems that could improve at a task over time such as simulating evolution or by learning from the data provided. Progression was rapid and computers began to master more and more tasks that had previously only been able to be carried out by humans.
Deep learning which is currently fuelling AI development, is a revival of one of the oldest ideas in AI. The technique involves passing data through layers of software which are loosely based on how brain cells work and known as artificial neural networks. As the network processes data, connections of the network adjust, building up an ability to interpret future data. In 2012 a series of experiments showed that neural networks provided with masses of data could give machines new powers of perception. One of these involved researchers from IBM, Microsoft and Google who showed that deep learning could deliver a significant improvement in speech recognition. As a result it is not surprising to learn that deep learning experts are in extremely high demand!
The future of AI
However, we feel about AI, it is here to stay. The giants of the technology industry including Google, Microsoft and Amazon, have built up huge levels of computer processing power to increase their core businesses of targeted advertising or predicting your next purchase. They are also making their technology available (for a fee of course!) to other companies to run their own AI projects. This will lead to advances in healthcare and national security for example and will help to accelerate the spread of AI into other industries.
Consumers can expect to be offered more gadgets and services with AI powered features. Google and Amazon in particular are confident that improvements in machine learning will make their virtual assistants and smart speakers more powerful. Amazon, for example, has devices with cameras to look at their owners and the world around them.
There are however, many things that machines cannot do such as common-sense reasoning and learning a new skill from just one or two examples. AI software will need to master tasks like these it it is to get close to the capabilities of humans.
Because of the almost limitless possibilities of the research into and the implementation of AI, development is moving at an incredible pace. Some fund management groups have identified the potential that AI offers to investors and have launched funds that pick up on these development opportunities.
Arnold Schwarzenegger famously coined the phrase "I'll be back" in the nightmarish vision of the future in the Terminator films where AI had evolved to such an extent that machines were thinking for themselves. Whilst that version of the future is unlikely, AI is certainly not 'going away'!
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The information in this article was accurate at the original date of publication in September 2018.