It’s your nighttime routine: You drop your phone onto the nightstand charging pad, and it asks about your day. You tell it, talking to the virtual personal assistant just like you’d talk to a friend.
And why not? Your phone’s artificial intelligence knows you almost as well as you know yourself (maybe even better). So when it suggests ways to get through tomorrow’s calendar, you trust its advice.
Get ready, people: That’s not that far off.
AI is practically everywhere, and getting smarter all the time. Tomorrow’s computers could find new treatments for cancer, compose a symphony and drive your child to school.
Since the first AI research effort 60 years ago at a Dartmouth College conference, humanity has been heading toward computer-based systems that can eventually learn and adapt for themselves. Engineers at universities, startups and the world’s biggest tech companies are linking powerful computers to create neural networks — similar to the wiring of the human brain — and putting them to work digesting and understanding vast stores of data.
Such neural nets can already recognize your face in photos, spot fraud, understand human speech, recommend songs and suggest replies to email. Google’s Project Magenta composes music, an early example of machine-created creativity. Comma.ai is using patterns learned from real-world drivers to teach its AI technology to drive for us. The company hopes to sell the technology by the end of the year.
Those are big steps on the way to the end game: creating machines that can think abstractly and adapt on the fly. Just like us.
Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and IBM all have AI projects in the works. Google alone has more than 100 teams focused on AI. The company reportedly spent more than $400 million to acquire machine-learning startup DeepMind, whose AlphaGo project caused a stir earlier this year when it beat a human champion at Go, considered the world’s most difficult strategy game. In a few years, companies will spend billions of dollars annually on AI, Forrester analyst Diego Lo Giudice predicts.
Yet the computing industry has barely gotten started. Expect AI to change your thinking about what computers can do. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates calls AI computing’s “holy grail,” even as he worries about AI’s potential for harm.
Super-capable AI will have its downside. Jobs will disappear — especially where the human touch now handles customer calls, fills out tax forms, drives trucks and cares for the sick and elderly. AI will also make it easier for thieves to steal, governments to track us and the military to build autonomous weapons.
“This is going to be a huge societal change,” says Andrew Moore, who worked on machine intelligence at Google before becoming dean of Carnegie Mellon’s school of computer science. Expect a “little assistant angel on your shoulder, whispering advice into your ear and arranging things all the time. That cognitive assistance will be making us all a little bit smarter.”
AI’s advances will come from more than just math whizzes and power programmers. We’re all contributing. Every Google search, Amazon purchase and Instagram post adds to the biggest collection of data in history. This is the food that makes AI systems grow.
Today, voice assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana can speed up web searches and answer questions. A new effort, Viv, is designed to complete online actions for users. In five years, AI will power personal assistants that can, by chatting with us and checking our data, diagnose diseases before we know ourselves, Moore predicts. (Microsoft this month reported its researchers used anonymized searches on a variety of symptoms to identify people with pancreatic cancer.)
In 10 years, Moore believes, “we’ll talk like friends.”
By analyzing what they’ve learned, our personal assistants might even be able to give us relationship advice.