AI Isn't Just a Movie; Machines Today Can "Think"

Kevin Maney
USA Today
June 29, 2001
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 software—a 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.

As an area of research, AI has been around since it was first identified and given its name during a conference at Dartmouth University in 1956. It hit a peak of excitement and media attention in the mid-1980s, when AI was overhyped as a technology that was about to change the world. One fervent branch at the time was expert systems—building a computer and software that could recreate the knowledge of an expert. A brewing company, for instance, could capture a master brewer in software, possibly making human master brewers less necessary.

The exuberance was hindered by a couple of snags that led to disenchantment with AI. For one, computers of the time weren't powerful enough to even come close to mimicking a human's processing power. Two, AI was trying to do too much. Creating a complete intelligence was too hard—and still is.

Knowing One Thing Well

These days, that's less of a barrier. Computers have gotten exponentially more powerful every year. Now, a PC is capable of running some serious AI software. And AI researchers have learned to aim at pieces of human capacity, building software that knows it can't know everything but can know one thing really well. That's how IBM's Deep Blue beat champion Gary Kasparov in chess. Together, the developments have "led to a blossoming of real-world applications," Horvitz says.

Those applications are taking on all forms.

Artificial Intelligence Part 2: Scientists Foresee Robotic Soccer Team, Artists, and Companions

(c) 2001 USA Today

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