When I spoke to Tasha Hedstrom this winter, she had been sober for more than 61 days. After struggling with opioid addiction for 15 years, Hedstrom is taking Vivitrol, a drug that blocks the pleasurable effects of opioids and reduces cravings. She goes to a court-mandated recovery program three days a week and tracks her progress on a phone app she found on Facebook, called Triggr Health.
Amazon's Alexa can summon an Uber and satisfy a four-year-old's demand for fart noises. Siri can control your Internet-connected thermostat. Each serve millions of users each day. But a lucky group of around 10,000 people, mostly in California, know that Facebook's assistant, named M, is the smartest of the bunch.
Last year, a strange self-driving car was released onto the quiet roads of Monmouth County, New Jersey. The experimental vehicle, developed by researchers at the chip maker Nvidia, didn't look different from other autonomous cars, but it was unlike anything demonstrated by Google, Tesla, or General Motors, and it showed the rising power of artificial intelligence. The car didn't follow a single instruction provided by an engineer or programmer. Instead, it relied entirely on an algorithm that had taught itself to drive by watching a human do it.
In 2013 a British artificial-intelligence startup called DeepMind surprised computer scientists by showing off software that could learn to play classic Atari games better than an expert human player. DeepMind was soon acquired by Google, and the technique that beat the Atari games, reinforcement learning, has become a hot topic in the field of AI and robotics. Google used reinforcement learning to create software that beat a champion Go player last year.
The proliferation of portable, voice-enabled gadgets like Amazon's Tap speaker and Doppler Labs's smart, wireless earbuds enables us to play music, search the Web, and answer phone calls around the house and on the go using verbal commands. But because these devices are susceptible to damage from dirt and moisture and last only a few hours per battery charge, we don't use them as much as we might.