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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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Lawyers can use smart programs instead of assistants to research case law. Forbes magazine uses an AI program called Narrative Science, rather than reporters, to write stories about corporate profits. Tax preparation software and online travel sites take work previously done by humans. Businesses from banks to airlines to cable TV companies have put the bulk of their customer service work in the hands of automated kiosks or voice-recognition systems.

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"While we're waiting for machines [to be] intelligent enough to carry on a long and convincing conversation with us, the machines are [already] intelligent enough to eliminate or preclude human jobs," Saffo says.

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The best argument that AI has a bright future may be made by fully acknowledging just how far it's already come. Take the Mars Curiosity rover.

"It is remarkable. It's absolutely incredible," enthuses AI expert Lindsay. "It certainly represents intelligence." No other biological organism on earth except man could have done what it has done, he says. But at the same time, "it doesn't understand what it is doing in the sense that human astronauts [would] if they were up there doing the same thing," he says.

Will machines ever exhibit that kind of humanlike intelligence, including self-awareness (which, ominously, brought about a "mental" breakdown in the AI system HAL in the classic sci-fi movie "2001: A Space Odyssey")?

"I think we've passed the Turing test, but we don't know it," argued Pat Hayes, a senior research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, in the British newspaper The Telegraph recently. Think about it, he says. Anyone talking to Siri in 1950 when Turing proposed his test would be amazed. "There's no way they could imagine it was a machine – because no machine could do anything like that in 1950."

But others see artificial intelligence remaining rudimentary for a long time. "Common sense is not so common. It requires an incredible breadth of world understanding," says iRobot's Angle. "We're going to see more and more robots in our world that are interactive with us. But we are a long way from human-level intelligence. Not five years. Not 10 years. Far away."

Even MIT's Winston, a self-described techno-optimist, is cautious. "It's easy to predict the future – it's just hard to tell when it's going to happen," he says. Today's AI rests heavily on "big data" techniques that crunch huge amounts of data quickly and cheaply – sifting through mountains of information in sophisticated ways to detect meaningful relationships. But it doesn't mimic human reasoning. The long-term goal, Winston says, is to somehow merge this "big data" approach with the "baby steps" he and other researchers now are taking to create AI that can do real reasoning.

Winston speculates that the field of AI today may be at a place similar to where biology was in 1950, three years before the discovery of the structure of DNA. "Everybody was pessimistic, [saying] we'll never figure it out," he says. Then the double helix was revealed. "Fifty years of unbelievable progress in biology" has followed, Winston says, adding: AI just needs "one or two big breakthroughs...."

• Carolyn Abate in San Francisco and Kelcie Moseley in Pullman, Wash., contributed to this report.

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