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Are intelligent, sentient robots going to take over the world? Not today — and maybe not ever.

Give credit to Hollywood for many of the fears surrounding artificial intelligence Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Do you think artificial intelligence is dangerous? Does AI may pose a serious risk to the human race. These are some reasons why you may want to be concerned. Read More (AI). The big screen has caused us to picture Will Smith battling robots, or Sarah Connor taking on Skynet every time we hear the term. Even new Hollywood releases, like 2014’s Transcendence and the up-and-coming Chappie, further perpetuate this stereotypical view of artificial intelligence.

The reality is a lot more complicated.  Artificial intelligence, described generally, is simply a set of technologies for building computer systems that can perform complex analytic tasks 8 Skilled Jobs That May Soon Be Replaced By Robots 8 Skilled Jobs That May Soon Be Replaced By Robots Are machines coming for your job? You might be surprised. Recent advances in AI are putting white collar jobs at risk. Read More  independently.  Simple examples include everything from speech recognition and decision-making to visual perception. There are a number of narrow-but-useful AI systems in existence, like Siri or Xbox One’s Kinect.

What AI Isn’t

Let’s take a moment to quell our fears and discuss what AI is not. First of all, machine intelligence has nothing to do with being “alive” or even “conscious.”  Modern artificial intelligence can match or exceed human capabilities in narrow domains (like chess, or answering Jeopardy questions) but they lack the flexibility and generality of the human mind.  These systems are not “people” and can only act with close human supervision and direction.  They are simply advanced computer systems built to simulate some aspects of human intelligence You Won't Believe It: DARPA Future Research Into Advanced Computers You Won't Believe It: DARPA Future Research Into Advanced Computers DARPA is one of the most fascinating and secretive parts of the US government. The following are some of DARPA's most advanced projects that promise to transform the world of technology. Read More .

Artificially intelligent software is controlled by humans.  Modern software is laser-focused on performing a single task – it is not generally creative, and does not act independently outside its domain.  As our algorithms becomes more powerful, perhaps we will begin to see software tools that can operate more independently across a broader and broader range of domains, but that’s a long ways off.  Smart people who are concerned about artificial intelligence research (like Elon Musk, who recently donated $10,000,000 to address the problem) aren’t concerned about today’s technology, they’re concerned about artificial intelligence systems that may exist at some time in the future.

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For now, there’s no need to fear a robotic apocalypse Microsoft, Artificial Intelligence, and The Robot Apocalypse Microsoft, Artificial Intelligence, and The Robot Apocalypse Microsoft is giving a line of autonomous robots a serious look. Is this the beginning of the end for humans, or just another step forward in the push for safe artificial intelligence? Read More  just yet.

What AI Is

Now that we’ve addressed some of the misconceptions surrounding artificial intelligence, it may be helpful to discuss modern examples of artificial intelligence as well as gadgets already relying on this technology.

AI is already here. This isn’t some future, theoretical technology we are working on. AI machines are already among us. Take for example Microsoft’s recent security robot demonstration. Called the K5, these autonomous machines stand 5 feet tall, weigh 300 pounds, and are equipped with HD cameras, sensors, alarms, Wi-Fi and – you guessed it – artificial intelligence. These machines have been programmed to recognize if something is out of place, like an injured employee or a potential trespasser. And as technology improves, the K5 will become more capable of recognizing even smaller discrepancies than humans can.

Windows Cortana

But the search for artificial intelligence can be even simpler. If we refer back to our earlier definition, the wave of new digital assistants could be classified as AI. Of course, there are those who disagree, stating that these machines don’t have true intelligence, only the appearance of intelligence. While that may be the case, if AI is defined as something that performs human tasks, like writing in a calendar, searching the web and recognize and analyzing voice queues, then Siri, Google Voice and Cortana Cortana Talks Back: Laugh, Cry & Love With Windows Phone's Digital Assistant Cortana Talks Back: Laugh, Cry & Love With Windows Phone's Digital Assistant Bored with no one to talk to? Why not strike up a conversation with your Windows Phone? These cues will make Cortana talk. Read More all qualify.

The Future of AI

One common assumption about artificial intelligence is that intelligence is the same thing as consciousness, or a human-like subjective experience.  In reality, it’s entirely possible that artificial intelligences could be very intelligent while also being very alien.  

Intelligence is not a spectrum, it’s a vast space space of possible minds, with many possibilities.  Some experts doubt whether machines could ever have anything resembling human consciousness.  Christof Koch, Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, has spent his career teaching people about consciousness and how he sees it as a property of matter. During a recent Q&A, Koch said researchers are still far from knowing why it occurs, or even agreeing on what consciousness is. He continues:

“I think consciousness, like mass, is a fundamental property of the universe. The analogy, and it’s a very good one, is that you can make pretty good weather predictions these days. You can predict the inside of a storm. But it’s never wet inside the computer. You can simulate a black hole in a computer, but space-time will not be bent. Simulating something is not the real thing.”

In other words, though consciousness may be simulated, Koch believes it will never truly occur in an artificial form.

With an ever increasing number of devices relying on cloud computing and greater device interconnectivity, we’ll eventually see a very diverse group of smart objects. Implementing artificial intelligence systems in these devices will help simplify tasks, and make our day-to-day lives even simpler. It won’t, however, turn our homes and gadgets against us and bring about the end of the human race — at least, not in the foreseeable future.

Artificial Intelligence is no match for Natural Stupidity by Sean Davis via Flickr, Nokia Lumia 635 Cortana Helping by Bhupinder Nayyar via Flickr

  1. Michael
    January 21, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    I am with these guys. Your article is not a definitive statement of what AI is or isn't. It is an example of all we don't know. And because we don't know the answer to the question, will machines one day become self-aware or intelligent enough to decide that human beings are not longer the ruler of this planet. They can't do that now, and that's all we really know.

    • Rick
      January 22, 2015 at 5:45 pm

      Great point, Michael. The future of AI is an intriguing mystery, though we do have some ideas of where it is trending for now. I seem to hear so many lamenting the advent of new forms of AI, instantly fearing the inevitable machine takeover. The truth is that AI is – at least for now – much more benign and helpful than it is often perceived.

    • dragonmouth
      January 23, 2015 at 1:01 am

      "The truth is that AI is – at least for now – much more benign and helpful than it is often perceived."
      That may be because there is very little, if any, "intelligence" to go with the "artificial". A Rumba may seem to have a rudimentary intelligence but it is only a robot following its programming. If it was intelligent, it would be able to deal with unexpected circumstances but it can't.

  2. Lukas
    January 20, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    I feel happy this yer AI talking is taking all forums. That means people are curious and curiosity is good enough to improve our minds and thinking. I wanna clear up one point here:
    every automated task that involves a preset algorithm and is able to give a response not already pre programmed, could be inside in the meaning of the term "Artificial Intelligence" . And yes, search engines are included. All entity that is capable of analyze previous information and evolves its answers, must be called IA too, even if we are clearly talking as intelligence in higher level.
    A very different matter, that confused all the people is the boundary between human and machines. Besides there is no objective limits to define what is an "alive" entity and what is not, we can take -self awareness- as the dominant separation parameter. When an IA trespass that limit, should not be tag as artificial anymore

  3. Doc
    January 19, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    "What AI Isn’t" What *current* AI isn't. There have already been "simulations" of the nervous system of primitive animals (worms, fruit flies, etc.), with the most ambitious being a (non-realtime) simulation of a cat's nervous system. These are neither conscious nor intelligent, but breakthroughs in the next 20 or so years could lead to things that are definitely *not* your description of "What AI Is." Experiments in other areas, such as machine vision, neural networks, and tactile sensors (being developed for prosthetic limbs) will add to this; something like a "Caprica" cylon is not out of the question. While this may or may not become a threat as envisioned by Stephen Hawking, it certainly won't look as primitive as today's "state of the art" AI.

    • Rick
      January 22, 2015 at 5:42 pm

      Thank you for your feedback, Doc. I will be certain to include a more descriptive title with my next article (unless it will preclude such impassioned feedback from my readers!)

  4. dragonmouth
    January 19, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    "Now that we’ve addressed some of the misconceptions surrounding artificial intelligence"
    No, we have NOT addressed some of the misconceptions because there is no standard, absolute definition of intelligence, artificial, natural or otherwise. Therefore, all we have are opinions expressed by various experts and every opinion can be considered as valid or as a "misconception" based on one's point of view. You notice I did not say "agreed upon definition" because there isn't one. Just because 500 million people agree on the wrong thing, no matter how you spin it, it is still the wrong thing.

    You have just given us your opinion of what AI is based on data carefully chosen by you to support your point of view. If we ask a priest, an anthropologist and an AI expert their definition of "intelligence" we will get three very different answers.

    " Modern artificial intelligence can match or exceed human capabilities in narrow domains (like chess, or answering Jeopardy questions)"
    According to that definition, search engines are AI.

    "though consciousness may be simulated, Koch believes it will never truly occur in an artificial form. "
    He is entitled to his educated opinion. Although it is intelligence that may be simulated, rather than consciousness. In the past many things have been said to be impossible to ever happen. Yet science and technology have made them happen. Never say never.

    "It won’t, however, turn our homes and gadgets against us and bring about the end of the human race"
    I'm glad you qualified that statement with "not in the forseeable future" because nobody has the faintest idea of how many nodes and how many connections between them are required before the network becomes sentient and self-aware.

    • Rick
      January 22, 2015 at 5:38 pm

      Thanks for the feedback. As you've pointed out, the future of AI is quite mysterious!

      One question I would ask of you: Do you not consider search engines to be employing AI?

    • dragonmouth
      January 23, 2015 at 12:52 am

      "One question I would ask of you: Do you not consider search engines to be employing AI?"
      It depends on the definition of AI. If you consider a welding robot to be primitive AI then search engines certainly are. But if the definition of AI includes independent actions (not pre-programmed) then search engines are nothing more than glorified sorting algorithms and far removed from AI.

      AFAIAC, intelligence, aritificial or other wise, implies consciousness, self-awareness and free will. I know, that definition would disqualify many people.

    • Rick
      January 23, 2015 at 4:52 pm

      "I know, that definition would disqualify many people."

      ^ This is great. I ask about search engines in particular because Google is making huge strides at the moment toward allowing actual machine learning rather than just machines employing algorithms. (see this article: https://medium.com/backchannel/google-search-will-be-your-next-brain-5207c26e4523)

      You also brought up an interesting point, and one that was at the heart of my impetus for writing this story; AI *can* imply consciousness, though it can mean a host of other things both in the present and looking forward. But for many, the sensationalization of AI had led them to believe that it *only* means consciousness and autonomy for machines. The truth is that the definition of AI is much more inclusive.

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