Back in July, I wrote a Deep End post entitled “there is no such thing as artificial intelligence and there never will be.” The central argument was as follows:
“…it’s important to realise what’s happening here, which is a massive growth in the speed with which computers can mindlessly crunch data according to some pre-programmed algorithm. What’s not happening is the slightest glimmer of anything that resembles true intelligence, consciousness or personality.”
Fundamentally, it’s people that are intelligent – and thus to speak of artificial intelligence (or AI) sounds as if we’re trying to create an artificial person. In reality, what is known as AI isn’t about creating a mind on a microchip, but increasing the sophistication of the impersonal computers we’ve already got.
For an introduction to what AI actually is and why it still matters, you won’t do better than Kevin Kelly’s brilliant article for Wired:
“…a picture of our AI future is coming into view, and it is not the HAL 9000—a discrete machine animated by a charismatic (yet potentially homicidal) humanlike consciousness—or a Singularitan rapture of superintelligence. The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services—cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need. Like all utilities, AI will be supremely boring, even as it transforms the Internet, the global economy, and civilization.”
Talk of “transforming civilisation” may sound like hyperbole, but just think about the tasks that have already been computerised – such as calculation, typing or navigation. In every case, the economics and sociology of these activities has been profoundly and permanently changed.
Extending the application of computing to tasks that have so far proven too complicated, knowledge-intensive and otherwise tricky is what AI is all about. Tasks which are in the process of being computerised include self-driving vehicles, energy infrastructure and the diagnosis of medical conditions.
As Kelly explains, the breakthroughs are coming thanks to progress on three fronts: Firstly, “cheap parallel computation” – i.e. machines that can handle many different computational processes at the same time and cross-refer between those processes. Secondly, “big data” – i.e. the ability to collect, store and search through massive amounts of information. And, thirdly, “better algorithms” – i.e. sophisticated software capable of applying all that processing power and data to complex tasks:
“This perfect storm of parallel computation, bigger data, and deeper algorithms generated the 60-years-in-the-making overnight success of AI. And this convergence suggests that as long as these technological trends continue—and there’s no reason to think they won’t—AI will keep improving.”
None of this entails the emergence of a thinking machine. Indeed the whole thing is dependent on human intelligence. For instance, you need some pretty smart software engineers to come up with those better algorithms. More surprising though is the extent to which all of our brains are being picked:
“Google is using search to make its AI better. Every time you type a query, click on a search-generated link, or create a link on the web, you are training the Google AI. When you type ‘Easter Bunny’ into the image search bar and then click on the most Easter Bunny-looking image, you are teaching the AI what an Easter bunny looks like.”
Internet companies big and small are investing billions in AI – but Kelly believes that scale is the key to success:
“The smarter it gets, the more people use it. The more people that use it, the smarter it gets. Once a company enters this virtuous cycle, it tends to grow so big, so fast, that it overwhelms any upstart competitors. As a result, our AI future is likely to be ruled by an oligarchy of two or three large, general-purpose cloud-based commercial intelligences.”
I wonder if sovereign governments would tolerate such a situation. While they may be happy to have the likes of Google dominate relatively limited services like search, will they be as relaxed about the software that might one day run the planet?
Governments may end up developing their own capabilities in this field – with a ‘national AI’ becoming as essential to statehood as a national army and navy.