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AI gets its groove back

Lamont Wood | April 15, 2014
After decades of start-and-stop, artificial intelligence is being advanced by major computing firms from Facebook and Google to IBM.

But no one can rule out a sudden, cataclysmic breakthrough, he adds Within the next century it might be possible to "port" brain functions to computers, suddenly creating machines as capable as humans for some, or even most, tasks. Assuming the machines are affordable and can be mass produced, the resulting unbounded supply of inexpensive human-capable labor could trigger a revolution on par with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the more recent Industrial Revolution, in which economic performance rose by a factor of 50 or more during a period of time previously needed for it to double, Hanson says. The world economy is already doubling every 15 years, so such a revolution would lead to it doubling every few months.

The field of AI is trying to understand human-level intelligence, something that took evolution a billion years and more to develop, and it's unreasonable to expect humans to recapitulate that process even in a few decades. Jeff Siskind, professor, Purdue University

Anyone with any ownership of the economy could see their wealth balloon until it reached some plateau, but those whose income is from their labor rather than from their investments could see themselves marginalized, like today's subsistence farmers or aboriginal foragers, since they will not be able compete for wages against mass-produced human-emulating machines, Hanson warns.

Others in the AI field are more upbeat about the future. "Things will come to be that we can't think of now -- there will be unexpected revolutions like the Internet," says Patrick Winston, a professor at MIT.

"As the machines become smart, they will make us smarter," agrees Narrative Science's Hammond. "No matter where you are or what you are doing they will get you the information you need, and you will see and hear a richer version of the world." Tapping into a world of information, "everyone will have an augmented memory of everything," he adds.

But, LeCun cautions, "We are still very far from building really intelligent machines." How far? He won't say. "Those kinds of predictions are invariably wrong," he explains.

"The field of AI is trying to understand human-level intelligence, something that took evolution a billion years and more to develop, and it's unreasonable to expect humans to recapitulate that process even in a few decades," adds Jeff Siskind, professor at Purdue University. "That said, I think we're making a huge amount of progress."

Beyond economic impact, futurists have also proposed a singularity, or a moment at which the machines individually or collectively achieve consciousness and turn against humanity. Those in the AI field tend to shrug off the idea.

"We can always pull the plug," MIT's Winston says.

 

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