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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The idea that AI must mimic the thinking process of humans has dropped away. "Creating artificial intelligences that are like humans is, at the end of the day, paving the cow paths," Mr. Saffo argues. "It's using the new technology to imitate some old thing."Skip to next paragraph
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Entrepreneurs like iRobot's Mr. Angle aren't fussing over whether today's clever gadgets represent "true" AI, or worrying about when, or if, their robots will ever be self-aware. Starting with Roomba, which marks its 10th birthday this month, his company has produced a stream of practical robots that do "dull, dirty, or dangerous" jobs in the home or on the battlefield. These range from smart machines that clean floors and gutters to the thousands of PackBots and other robot models used by the US military for reconnaissance and bomb disposal.
While robots in particular seem to fascinate humans, especially if they are designed to look like us, they represent only one visible form of AI. Two other developments are poised to fundamentally change the way we use the technology: voice recognition and self-driving cars.
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In the 1986 sci-fi film "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," the engineer of the 23rd century starship Enterprise, Scotty, tries to talk to a 20th-century computer.
Scotty: "Computer? Computer??"
He's handed a computer mouse and speaks into it.
Scotty: "Ah, hello Computer!"
20th-century scientist: "Just use the keyboard."
Scotty: "A keyboard? How quaint!"
Computers that easily understand what we say, or perhaps watch our gestures and anticipate what we want, have long been a goal of AI. Siri, the AI-powered "personal assistant" built into newer iPhones, has gained wide attention for doing the best job yet, even though it's often as much mocked for what it doesn't understand as admired for what it does.
Apple's Siri – and other AI-infused voice-recognition software such as Google's voice search – is important not only for what it can do now, like make a phone call or schedule an appointment, but for what it portends. Siri might understand human conversation at the level of a kindergartner, but it still is magnitudes ahead of earlier voice-recognition programs.
"Siri is a big deal," says Saffo. It's a step toward "devices that we interact with in ever less formal ways. We're in an age where we're using the technology we have to create ever more empathetic devices. Soon it will become de rigueur for all applications to offer spoken interaction.... In fact, we consumers will be surprised and disappointed if or when they don't."
Siri is a first step toward the ultimate vision of a VPA (virtual personal assistant), say Norman Winarsky and Bill Mark, who teamed up to develop Siri at the research firm SRI International before the software was bought by Apple. "Siri required not just speech recognition, but also understanding of natural language, context, and ultimately, reasoning (itself the domain of most artificial intelligence research today).... We think we've only seen the tip of the iceberg," they wrote in an article on TechCrunch last spring.
In the near future, VPAs will become more useful, helping humans do tasks such as weigh health-care alternatives, plan a vacation, and buy clothes.