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How artificial intelligence is changing our lives

From smart phones that act as personal concierges to self-parking cars to medical robots, the artificial intelligence revolution is here. So where do humans fit in?

By Staff writer / September 16, 2012

This file photo shows a technician works on a robot at a trade fair in Hannover, Germany.

Nigel Treblin/AFP/Getty Images/File

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Bedford, Mass.

In Silicon Valley, Nikolas Janin rises for his 40-minute commute to work just like everyone else. The shop manager and fleet technician at Google gets dressed and heads out to his Lexus RX 450h for the trip on California's clotted freeways. That's when his chauffeur – the car – takes over. One of Google's self-driving vehicles, Mr. Janin's ride is equipped with sophisticated artificial intelligence technology that allows him to sit as a passenger in the driver's seat.

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At iRobot Corporation in Bedford, Mass., a visitor watches as a five-foot-tall Ava robot independently navigates down a hallway, carefully avoiding obstacles – including people. Its first real job, expected later this year, will be as a telemedicine robot, allowing a specialist thousands of miles away to visit patients' hospital rooms via a video screen mounted as its "head." When the physician is ready to visit another patient, he taps the new location on a computer map: Ava finds its own way to the next room, including using the elevator.

In Pullman, Wash., researchers at Washington State University are fitting "smart" homes with sensors that automatically adjust the lighting needed in rooms and monitor and interpret all the movements and actions of its occupants, down to how many hours they sleep and minutes they exercise. It may sound a bit like being under house arrest, but in fact boosters see such technology as a sort of benevolent nanny: Smart homes could help senior citizens, especially those facing physical and mental challenges, live independently longer.

From the Curiosity space probe that landed on Mars this summer without human help, to the cars whose dashboards we can now talk to, to smart phones that are in effect our own concierges, so-called artificial intelligence is changing our lives – sometimes in ways that are obvious and visible, but often in subtle and invisible forms. AI is making Internet searches more nimble, translating texts from one language to another, and recommending a better route through traffic. It helps detect fraudulent patterns in credit-card searches and tells us when we've veered over the center line while driving.

Even your toaster is about to join the AI revolution. You'll put a bagel in it, take a picture with your smart phone, and the phone will send the toaster all the information it needs to brown it perfectly.

In a sense, AI has become almost mundanely ubiquitous, from the intelligent sensors that set the aperture and shutter speed in digital cameras, to the heat and humidity probes in dryers, to the automatic parking feature in cars. And more applications are tumbling out of labs and laptops by the hour.

"It's an exciting world," says Colin Angle, chairman and cofounder of iRobot, which has brought a number of smart products, including the Roomba vacuum cleaner, to consumers in the past decade.

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