There is a common perception that, although computers may be able to perform calculations faster than us, they will never be able to “think” or be “truly creative”. Even among those who reject this perception, there is a commonly held belief that it will take “hundreds” or “thousands” of years for computers to match the brain’s abilities. Supporters of this view often cite the failed AI projects of the 1970s and 1980s — concluding that, like nuclear fusion, AI is the technology of the future and always will be.
However, unlike nuclear fusion, AI technologies have already become a part of our daily lives. Thirty years ago, if you wanted to read some papers written in another language, your only real options were to find a friend who knew it, or hire a translator. Nowadays, Google Translate, an AI technology, provides us with instant, free, automatic translation of any web page or document, between more than two thousand language pairs. The technology is, of course, not perfect, but citing imperfections in a wonder of the modern age as a reason why “computers can’t really think” brings to mind those who said that “this ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication”.
Facial recognition is another AI technology that has hit the mainstream. A laboratory curiosity until recently, Toshiba now offers dozens of laptop models with “login through facial recognition”; instead of typing in a password, you can simply look at the computer’s camera, and it will match your face to your profile and log you in automatically. It would be relatively straightforward to extend this technology to eliminate passwords altogether; there would be no more “wrong password” error messages or memorizing cryptic strings of numbers and symbols, because you could just look into the camera, and the computer would know it was you.
Many more AI technologies work quietly, behind the scenes, supporting our infrastructure and preventing disasters. For instance, in the late 1990s, the new online payment company PayPal was hit with a wave of credit card fraud schemes. Losses ran into the tens of millions of dollars. Given the millions of payments flowing through the system, there was no way that a few dozen PayPal employees could stem the losses, and it looked like the fraud problem was going to grow until it bankrupted the company. However, several of the people at PayPal built an artificial intelligence system that could sift through the millions of payments and predict, with fairly high accuracy, which ones were part of a criminal operation and which ones were innocent. Coupled with human investigators, AI managed to put a cap on the fraud problem, and PayPal was bought by eBay in October 2002 for $1.6 billion.
Yet another “technology of the future,” quietly operating behind the scenes, is AI-driven robotics. Human-shaped, anthropomorphic robots remain in the laboratory, because merely copying the human form as closely as possible is not an effective way to get work done. But factory robotics, a less-known technology, is one of the key drivers behind our increased manufacturing ability over the past thirty years. Robot labor in factories has so completely replaced human labor that the First World is, in a very real sense, slowly approaching a post-scarcity society, where a large number of physical goods — from books, to toys, to clothes — can be had for pennies on the dollar, plus the cost of shipping.
When compared to other branches of engineering, like electrical, chemical, nuclear, and mechanical engineering, AI’s impact on the world is admittedly modest… but this is mostly accounted for by the fact that AI, as a field, is only fifty-five years old. Fifty-five years after its discovery, electricity was still mainly seen as a laboratory curiosity. A hundred years later, it formed the backbone of our industrial civilization, and if anything, AI has even greater potential. Electricity powers our computers and light bulbs, but intelligence powers almost everything we do — from our ability to read and write, to our artistic and scientific endeavors, to our engineering and technological capabilities. If the distinguishing feature of a bird is its ability to fly, and the distinguishing feature of a cheetah is its ability to run very fast, the distinguishing feature of our species is clearly our intelligence and high mental capacity.
When we used machines to enhance our physical strength, we found that the combination of man and machine could move rivers and build skyscrapers. If we can use machines to augment our intellectual strength, the sort of great breakthroughs that used to only happen once in a lifetime might become commonplace. There is, as far as researchers in the field can tell, no technological reason why everyone can’t discover new laws of physics as quickly as Einstein, or play chess as well as Kasparov, or compose music as well as Mozart, if we have sufficiently good training programs and AI-based intelligence augmentation technology. Given these abilities, AI might propel our civilization to a whole new level, as different from our 21st-century society as our modern society is from hunter-gatherers.