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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?

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What may be most surprising about AI today, in fact, is how little amazement it creates. Perhaps science-fiction stories with humanlike androids, from the charming Data ("Star Trek") to the obsequious C-3PO ("Star Wars") to the sinister Terminator, have raised unrealistic expectations. Or maybe human nature just doesn't stay amazed for long.

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"Today's mind-popping, eye-popping technology in 18 months will be as blasé and old as a 1980 pair of double-knit trousers," says Paul Saffo, a futurist and managing director of foresight at Discern Analytics in San Francisco. "Our expectations are a moving target."

If Siri, the voice-recognition program in newer iPhones and seen in highly visible TV ads, had come out in 1980, "it would have been the most astonishing, breathtaking thing," he says. "But by the time Siri had come, we were so used to other things going on we said, 'Oh, yeah, no big deal.' Technology goes from magic to invisible-and-taken-for-granted in about two nanoseconds."

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In one important sense, the quest for AI has been a colossal failure. The Turing test, proposed by British mathematician Alan Turing in 1950 as a way to verify machine intelligence, gauges whether a computer can fool a human into thinking another human is speaking during short conversation via text (in Turing's day by teletype, today by online chat). The test sets a low bar: The computer doesn't have to be able to really think like a human; it only has to seem to be human. Yet more than six decades later no AI program has passed Turing's test (though an effort this summer did come close).

The ability to create machine intelligence that mimics human thinking would be a tremendous scientific accomplishment, enabling humans to understand their own thought processes better. But even experts in the field won't promise when, or even if, this will happen.

"We're a long way from [humanlike AI], and we're not really on a track toward that because we don't understand enough about what makes people intelligent and how people solve problems," says Robert Lindsay, professor emeritus of psychology and computer science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and author of "Understanding Understanding: Natural and Artificial Intelligence."

"The brain is such a great mystery," adds Patrick Winston, professor of artificial intelligence and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. "There's some engineering in there that we just don't understand."

Instead, in recent years the definition of AI has gradually broadened. "Ten years ago, if you asked me if Watson [the computer that defeated all human opponents on the quiz show "Jeopardy!"] was intelligent, I'd probably argue that it wasn't because it was missing something," Dr. Winston says. But now, he adds, "Watson certainly is intelligent. It's a certain kind of intelligence."


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