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Still Searching for the Mind

Whether it takes 25 years or 50 to achieve perfect speech recognition, such practical goals are still far closer than understanding, let alone replicating, human consciousness. And embracing them has allowed significant progress-with far more to come. In corporate research departments and university programs alike, artificial-intelligence researchers are finding new ways to automate labor-saving devices, analyze information about our physical world or make sense of the vast reserves of information entombed in libraries and databases. These range from the interactive Web- and computer-based training courses devised by Cognitive Arts, a company founded by Roger Schank, the former head of the artificial-intelligence program at Yale University, to a system developed by the Centre for Marine and Petroleum Technology, a European petroleum company consortium, to analyze the results of oil well capacity tests.

But considering how dramatic a departure so much of this work is from traditional A.I., it is unsurprising that some researchers have their reservations about the field’s newly pragmatic bent.

Today’s artificial-intelligence practitioners “seem to be much more interested in building applications that can be sold, instead of machines that can understand stories,” complains Marvin Minsky of the MIT Media Lab, who as much as anyone alive can lay claim to the title of A.I.’s “grand old man.” Minsky wonders if the absence of a “big win” for artificial intelligence-what mapping the human genome has meant for biology or the Manhattan Project for physics-has been too discouraging, which in turn saddens him. “The field attracts not as many good people as before.”

Some vow to keep up the fight. “I’ve never failed to recognize in my own work a search for the secret of human consciousness,” says Douglas R. Hofstadter, whose 1979 book Gdel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid was constructed as an extended “fugue on minds and machines” and who evinces little patience with those who would reduce A.I. to a subfield of advanced engineering. “The field is founded on the idea that if intelligence is created on the computer, it will automatically be the same kind of consciousness that humans have,” says Hofstadter, currently director of the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition at Indiana University. “For me it has always been a search for thinking.” Hofstadter warns researchers against losing sight of this quest.

The elusiveness of the goal, Hofstadter and others stress, does not mean that it is unattainable. “We should get used to the fact that some of these problems are very big,” says Stork, the editor of HAL’s Legacy. “We won’t have HAL in my lifetime, or my children’s.”

But even as artificial-intelligence researchers work toward the big win, many have turned their attention to more practical pursuits, giving us software that can sort our mail, find that one-in-a-billion Web page or help rescue workers pull us from the wreckage of an accident or terrorist attack. And their successes may be what will keep A.I. alive until it’s truly time to rekindle the quest for an understanding of consciousness.

Important Players in A.I.

Artificial intelligence is becoming so deeply embedded in computer applications of all kinds that many prominent companies have created A.I. teams. Here are five commercial entities doing important work in the field.

NameLocationFocusCycorpAustin, TX”Common sense” processing and ontologies for large databasesIBM (Watson Research Center)Yorktown Heights, NYData mining and intelligent-agent developmentiRobotSomerville, MARobots chiefly for industrial and military applicationsMicrosoft (Microsoft Research)Redmond, WAIntelligent assistants and user interfaces for the Windows operating system and Office software suiteNEC (NEC Research Institute)Princeton, NJVisual recognition, natural-language processing, learning algorithmsSRI InternationalMenlo Park, CAMachine vision, virtual reality, natural-language processing

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