The rising power of artificial intelligence

By January 10, 2012 3 Comments

Legendary VC Vinod Khosla has a guest post about the ‘Surprising Path of Artficial Intelligence’ up on Techcrunch today.  It is a reminder of both the chequered history of computer smarts and the unrealised potential.

The history is one of promises unfulfilled.  Khosla quotes Google research chief Peter Norvig to sum it up:

[Khosla] I read the following in a NY Post article last year by Google’s research chief Peter Norvig:

[Norvig] Forty years ago this December, President Nixon declared a war on cancer, pledging a “total national commitment” to conquering the disease. Fifty years ago this spring, President Kennedy declared a space race, promising to land a man safely on the moon before the end of the decade. And 54 years ago, Artificial Intelligence pioneer Herbert Simon declared “there are now in the world machines that think” and predicted that a computer would be world chess champion within 10 years.

[Khosla] Though we made it to the moon the efforts in cancer and artificial intelligence have failed in their larger ambitions but have made progress. In cancer:

[Norvig] Those hoping for a single “cure” were disappointed because cancer turned out to be not a single problem but a complex arrangement of inter-related problems on which we continue to make incremental progress.

Artificial intelligence turned out to be more like cancer research than a moon shot. We don’t have HAL 9000, C-3PO, Commander Data, or the other androids imagined in the movies, but A.I. technology touches our lives many times every day…

Those every day touch points are everywhere and most of them go by un-noticed – artificial intelligence (AI) systems are built into photocopiers, building control systems, word processor software, computer games, cars, and mobile phones (I could go on).  On top of that there are the headline grabbing high profile AI success stories, including an IBM computer (Deep Blue) beating the world chess champion for the first time (1997), another IBM computer (Watson) beating human contestants to win the quiz show Jeopardy (2011), and Google’s self driving cars.

The interesting question (of course) is ‘where does it go next?’

The underlying driver here is improvement in computing power – particularly data processing and storage. Artificial intelligence systems work by looking for patterns in huge datasets and it is only now that is becoming cost effective. Apple’s Siri was the first attempt at a mass market wide ranging AI, and that became possible only in the iPhone4S. As the cost of processing and memory continue to fall systems like Siri (in the broadest terms) will start to become so useful that we get dependant upon them. Probably utterly dependant. If that seems incomprehensible now think about how reliant you are on your smartphone and whether that would have seemed likely ten years ago.

As a reminder of how fast computers are evolving consider the recent assessment by Forrester that in 1993 the iPad 2 would have ranked among the top 30 computers in the world. Imagine what you will hold in your hand in five years time.

Remember also Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that by 2029 we will be manufacturing computers that are comprehensively as intelligent as humans.

Khosla highlights healthcare and education as two areas where we will feel the benefits of AI. I can see his thinking there, and I look forward to his posts on those topics, but I suspect that in ten years time artificial intelligence will be as ubiquitous as electricity is today. To finish with a small example, learning is a key part of AI and systems that don’t personalise by learning will increasingly lose out to those that do. I can see that being true for both consumer and enterprise.

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