Artificial intelligence: 55 years of research later - and where is AI now?

Summary:The world has come a long way since 1955 but has AI? What are AI researchers and their machine learning systems up to these days? And will there ever be a truly intelligent machine?

At the heart of AI lies a conundrum that has not only not yet been solved, but one which scientists don't yet even know how to solve: how do you manufacture intelligence? Is it even possible? You can read more about the subject in this article, Artificial intelligence: The conundrum of consciousness.

While the problems associated with determining the very nature of consciousness and intelligence have doubtless dogged the progress of developing human-level AGI, there's another reason why its creation remains a far-distant prospect: research simply isn't being directed down that route.

"I think in the '60s, '70s people were maybe making predictions - we were going to have AI systems like the human brain in 10 years and things like that - maybe they were completely unrealistic scenarios [but] we've tended to use AI systems for specific areas. We've not been looking at recreating humans," Reading's Warwick tells


Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics, University of Reading
(Photo credit: Chris Beaumont/CBS Interactive)

The bread and butter of AI research is instead to be found in making iterative improvements to existing systems, according to the FHI's Bostrom.

"There is a large amount of research on very specific applications and on fine-tuning different algorithms and doing work that amounts to incremental improvements on what we have today," he says, adding: "There is another much smaller set of people who are interested in trying to develop general artificial intelligence and it's much harder there to judge whether there is any real progress or not, because there hasn't been any useful or impressive applications of the intermediary results so far."

Incremental improvements may sound less exciting than having machines as smart as we are, but such work is exactly where AI starts to get interesting. After all, specific systems are far more immediately useful to the modern world than some amorphous AGI.

Some of these specific systems - sometimes referred to as narrow AI - deployed in the world today include things like autopilot software for aeroplanes and just-in-time inventory systems that keep shelves stocked with goods.

Search engines too are riddled with AI, according to the AAAI's Horvitz.

"The large search engines are really large-scale efforts in AI," he says. "They are already more intelligent than humans in their ability to find information, interpret people's intentions from queries, and do such tasks as translation between many language pairs. So we don't have 'human-level' intelligence but we've had a number of important breakthroughs in machine perception, learning, and reasoning, and are seeing rich applications in areas like online services, robotics and conversational systems."

There are hundreds of narrow AIs beavering away under the skin of society according to futurist Ray Kurzweil: "Every time you send an email or connect a cell phone call, intelligent algorithms route the information. Pick up any complex product and it was designed at least in part by intelligent computer-assisted design and assembled in robotic factories with inventory levels controlled by intelligent just-in-time inventory systems. Intelligent algorithms automatically detect credit card fraud, diagnose electrocardiograms and blood cell images, fly and land airplanes, guide intelligent weapon systems and a lot more."


B747-400 flight deck (Photo credit: KOBUS 2C via under the following Creative Commons licence)

"These were all research projects just a decade ago," he adds.

So while AI research hasn't so far spawned an electronic entity that can both do complex maths, locate a bottle of ketchup in a Tesco Metro and pick out a tie to wear with your blue suit, it has created increasingly sophisticated software that is acting as the electronic brains behind many practical, useful and even essential applications to our modern infrastructure - performing complex tasks that are often impossible for a human brain to do, certainly anywhere near as quickly and accurately.

Unsurprisingly then, AI's influence looks set to spread and deepen.

"Every company now realises that AI can improve how they do things," Stanford's Koller says. "Every company has an IT component, realises that AI can just dramatically improve how their system functions and so I've had students who have gone to everything from industry giants like Google to small start-ups doing computer security and anything in between."

Asked whether the increasing complexity of society is making AI more imperative, she is unequivocal: "Absolutely. We're faced with this flood of data in all realms of our existence - whether it's in the scientific disciplines where people are collecting data much faster than they're able to understand it, or whether we consider the web where the amount of data that people are putting out there is just enormous and there is so much information out there it's just impossible for people to keep up with that and sort through it, and figure out what it is they should be looking at when they're looking for something."

"When you think about how the entire world around us is being equipped with sensors of all different kinds - your refrigerator is probably a computer, your car has at least six computers in it, all of these are little computers that are sensing the world, telling us useful information that currently no one's doing anything with trying to make sense of that and so I think that all of these data-rich, knowledge-poor domains are just a tremendous opportunity for AI systems and AI's likely to dramatically revolutionise all of them," she adds.

And Koller is not the only one with such a view - the AAAI's Horvitz also believes AI will be a disruptive force in many walks of life: "AI will have a great deal of influence in transportation, education, healthcare, and many areas of commerce, as well as in basic scientific research."

Topics: Developer

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