Sixty years ago this summer, four computer science professors established a summer project aimed at creating “artificial intelligence”—the first time this phrase was ever used. The hope was to figure out how to make machines use language and perform abstract thought.
“We think that a significant advance can be made if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer,” the now famous project proposal said. In retrospect that was almost hubristically optimistic. We still don’t have software that can talk or write as we do, or perform abstract reasoning.
Yet in recent years software has become capable of many impressive things that once seemed impossible, such as recognizing images and speech, or understanding language well enough to pen short responses to e-mails, a feature Google recently added to its e-mail service.
MIT Technology Review’s two-day EmTech Digital conference that began in San Francisco this morning will explore how this technology is opening up powerful new opportunities in all areas of life and business.
“Extraordinary new technologies—cars that drive themselves through busy streets and personal assistants that seem to anticipate our every need—are already among us,” said Jason Pontin, MIT Technology Review’s editor in chief, when he opened the conference. “Every imaginable industry will need to reckon with this artificial intelligence sea change.”
Existing products and services such as Web search, translation apps, and social networks are becoming much more powerful and nuanced. There are signs that industries such as health care and finance could be fundamentally transformed.
Speakers appearing at EmTech Digital will describe their work on ideas such as bringing billions more people online using speech recognition, improving productivity by creating robots that work with people, having software write news articles and financial documents, and putting cars on the road that pilot themselves.
They’ll also discuss whether this recent progress may have led us back 60 years: are we really any closer to achieving the goals of that first-ever artificial intelligence project? True mastery of language, for example, remains very much out of reach for software.
Whatever the answer to that question, no one in any industry can afford to ignore this technology. There is clearly much that can be achieved by putting our best, if imperfect, artificial intelligence technology to use in as many places as possible.
EmTech Digital continues through the end of Tuesday. Follow along on Twitter at #EmTechDigital and check back here for more coverage.
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