If you are looking for an answer to the question What is Artificial Intelligence? and you only have a minute, then here's the definition the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence offers on its home page: "the scientific understanding of the mechanisms underlying thought and intelligent behavior and their embodiment in machines."
However, if you are fortunate enough to have more than a minute, then please get ready to embark upon an exciting journey exploring AI (but beware, it could last a lifetime) …
Thirty-five years ago, while Martin Amis was writing "Money," one of the novels that defined the nineteen-eighties, he admitted to a distracting dalliance with another contemporary icon. "I have spent weeks in a PacMan-fed stupor, unwilling and unable to think about anything else," he wrote in "Invasion of the Space Invaders," his "addict's guide" to the nascent arcade. Amis was not alone in his obsession. The Japanese-made game, in which players guide an auto-munching yellow head through a Daedalian maze, consuming a trail of pellets while fleeing four candy-tone ghosts, earned more than a billion dollars in quarters in its first year, surpassing the highest-grossing "Star Wars" film at the time. Pac-Man towered, Amis wrote, over "a vast garbage dump of rocky romances and wrecked careers."
This is because the companies that make popular hardware, like Samsung and Apple, get to decide which software comes pre-loaded onto their devices. But there's little to keep hardware companies from creating their own competing software; Samsung, a major producer of phones that use Google's Android operating system, recently started embedding phones with its own Samsung Pay mobile-wallet software, a direct competitor to Google's similar Android Pay. That helps explain Pichai's opening move: to make the case that Google has any business designing devices, he started by trying to convince his audience that what makes hardware valuable is the software within it--which just happens to be Google's area of expertise. But the company's success in selling people on devices will depend at least as much on style as on substance.
LinkedIn, the business-oriented social-networking company that Microsoft acquired, this week, for 26.2 billion, was founded on two premises. The first was that, even in the winner-take-all world of Internet businesses, there would still be room for a niche company (meaning, in this case, only four hundred million registered users, and a hundred million users per month). The second was that what it means to work in a business is now profoundly different from what it was in the Organization Man era. White-collar employees are highly unlikely to spend a lifetime with a single employer, and more and more are not employees at all in the traditional sense. They self-manage their careers, in part by maintaining online personal networks, rather than have them managed by a corporate human-relations department.
Microsoft's announcement, on Monday, that it would purchase LinkedIn--its biggest acquisition ever, at more than twenty-six billion dollars--brought to mind an earlier takeover attempt, almost a decade ago. Back in the mid-aughts, Microsoft's C.E.O. at the time, Steve Ballmer, flew to Palo Alto to try to convince Mark Zuckerberg, the young C.E.O. of Facebook, to let Microsoft buy his company. During Facebook's first couple of years, bigger companies had dismissed it, and social networking in general, as a fad for college kids; Zuckerberg had even admitted that he didn't care how Facebook would eventually make money. But Ballmer, who wanted to catch up to Google in the online-advertising business, was beginning to see Facebook's power. People were signing up for accounts in extraordinary numbers.
"Don't be evil," Google's two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, famously proclaimed in the manifesto they published just before their company went public, in 2004. Avoiding evil suggested a pretty low bar, but the vow itself--along with the founders' boast that "our business practices are beyond reproach"--was an invitation to find contrary examples. There have been plenty of nominations, including the announcement, in 2012, that Google would track its customers' Gmail missives, Web searches, and YouTube usage, which had the effect of helping advertisers target potential customers. Google still scans e-mail and tracks Web searches. This is, in fact, its business model--your Gmail account and search cost no money; you pay for it by letting people advertise to you based on keywords used in searches and e-mails.
Sundar Pichai made a bold statement in a letter to shareholders. After describing the evolution of computers since the nineties, from hulking desktop machines to petite portable devices, he wrote, "Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the'device' to fade away." His point was that, because computing technology is becoming smaller and more powerful, computers can be built in all kinds of forms. Building devices is no longer hard. The difficult part--and the part that will distinguish products from one another--is the experience that computers facilitate.
On the evening of March 31st, Elon Musk unveiled Tesla's sinuous Model 3, the company's first "affordable" electric-car model. After touting the sedan's punchy acceleration, two-hundred-and-fifteen-mile battery range, and sweeping, seamless glass roof, he mentioned its base price of thirty-five thousand dollars and told the audience that prospective buyers had already reserved more than a hundred and fifteen thousand of the vehicles, to rapturous applause and shouts of "You did it!" Not one to miss a marketing trick, Musk capped the night on Twitter, with a cryptic thank-you message that promised more: "Thanks for tuning in to the Model 3 unveil Part 1! Part 2 is super next level, but that's for later . . . Within hours, the tech community was awash in speculation about what more Tesla could have in store for the Model 3. Some wondered, specifically, whether it would be the world's first mass-market, fully autonomous self-driving car. Spurred forward by Google and other Silicon Valley companies, the auto industry has been tinkering with autonomous vehicles for years.