Smart cities, search engines, autonomous vehicles: The pairing of massive data sets and self-learning algorithms is transforming the world around us in ways that are not always easy to grasp. The strange ways computers "think" are hidden within opaque proprietary code. It has been called the "end of theory." There is a danger, says Paola Sturla, Lecturer in Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, that human agency will be nudged out of the picture. Sturla, who is trained as an architect and landscape architect, has called on designers to renew the tradition of humanism.
Inventor and author Ray Kurzweil, who currently runs a group at Google writing automatic responses to your emails in cooperation with the Gmail team, recently talked with WIRED Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Thompson at the Council on Foreign Relations. Here's an edited transcript of that conversation. Nicholas Thompson: Let's begin with you explaining the law of accelerating returns, which is one of the fundamental ideas underpinning your writing and your work. Ray Kurzweil: Halfway through the Human Genome Project, 1 percent of the genome had been collected after seven years. So mainstream critics said, "I told you this wasn't gonna work.
The uses of artificial intelligence (AI) that get the most press are usually the big, splashy ones. Whether it's IBM's Watson beating Ken Jennings at Jeopardy, DeepMind besting Lee Sedol at Go, the massive influx of news about self-driving cars, the growing personal marketplace, or Elon Musk's increasingly public trepidation, these kinds of AI stories have a way of capturing public attention. But quietly, AI powers search and recommendation engines at places like Google and Netflix, filters out obscene images on your favorite social networks, and proves complex mathematical theorems. You probably hear far less about AI applications in retail. However, AI in retail is something that will affect everyone who shops online in the coming years.
You don't have to agree with Elon Musk's apocalyptic fears of artificial intelligence to be concerned that, in the rush to apply the technology in the real world, some algorithms could inadvertently cause harm. This type of self-learning software powers Uber's self-driving cars, helps Facebook identify people in social-media posts, and let's Amazon's Alexa understand your questions. Now DeepMind, the London-based AI company owned by Alphabet Inc., has developed a simple test to check if these new algorithms are safe.
"When you are born, you know nothing." This is the kind of statement you expect to hear from a philosophy professor, not a Silicon Valley executive with a new company to pitch and money to make. A tall, rangy man who is almost implausibly cheerful, Hawkins created the Palm and Treo handhelds and cofounded Palm Computing and Handspring. His is the consummate high tech success story, the brilliant, driven engineer who beat the critics to make it big. Now he's about to unveil his entrepreneurial third act: a company called Numenta. But what Hawkins, 49, really wants to talk about -- in fact, what he has really wanted to talk about for the past 30 years -- isn't gadgets or source codes or market niches.