Steven Spielberg's forthcoming A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is only a movie. Or is it?
The movie, set in the near future, is about a humanlike robot boy who runs on artificial-intelligence softwarea computer program that doesn't just follow instructions, as today's software does, but can think and learn on its own.
In some ways, the character is a fantasy. It's no closer to reality than the alien in Spielberg's earlier E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Yet artificial intelligence is very real right now. It's far from recreating a human brain, with all its power, emotions, and flexibility, though that might be possible in as little as 30 years. Today's AI can recreate slices of what humans do, in software that can indeed make decisions.
In recent years, this so-called narrow AI has made its way into everyday life. A jet lands in fog because of relatively simple AI programmed into its computers. The expertise written into the program looks at dozens of readings from the jet's instruments and decides, much as a pilot would, how to adjust the throttle, flaps and other controls.
Lately, AI has increasingly turned up in technology announcements. For example:
Charles Schwab, the discount brokerage, recently said it has added AI to its Web site to help customers find information more easily.
AT&T Labs is working on AI that can make robots play soccer and computer networks more efficient.
A computer program called Aaron, unveiled last month, has learned to make museum-quality original paintings. "It's a harbinger of what's to come," says technology pioneer Ray Kurzweil, who has licensed Aaron and will sell it to PC users. ''It's another step in the blurring of human and machine intelligence.''
The commercial successes help fuel laboratory research that's pushing the fringes of AI ever closer to the equivalent of human intelligence. Software is getting better at cleverly breaking down the complex decision-making processes that go into even the simplest acts, such as recognizing a face. Hardware is marching toward brainlike capacity.
The fastest supercomputer, the IBM-built ASCI White at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, has about 1/1000th the computational power of our brains. IBM is building a new one, called Blue Jean, that will match the raw calculations-per-second computing power of a brain, says Paul Horn, IBM's director of research. Blue Jean will be ready in four years.
"Like myself, a lot of AI researchers are driven by the pursuit of someday understanding intelligence deeply enough to create intelligences," says Eric Horvitz, who was a leading scientist in AI while at Stanford University and is now at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington. "Many of us believe we really are on a mission."
Horvitz and others also believe this is breakthrough time for AI, when the mission spins into a wide variety of technologies.