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) …
As a kid, I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. As a future primatologist, I was mesmerized. Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups. It's been said, "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't." In reality, there's lots more of the former.
The Canadian poet Dennis Lee once wrote that the consolations of existence might be improved if we thought, worked, and lived as though we were inhabiting "the early days of a better civilization." The test of this would be whether humans, separately and together, are able to generate and make better choices. This is as much a question about wisdom as it is about science. We don't find it too hard to imagine continued progress in science and technology. We can extrapolate from the experiences of the last century toward a more advanced civilization that simply knows more, can control more, and is less vulnerable to threats.
Rafael Yuste thinks neuroscientists have been looking at the brain too close. "It's just like a TV screen--if you're watching a movie and could only look at an individual pixel, you would never understand what's going on," he says. "What neuroscientists have been doing since [the father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramon y] Cajal, is looking at the single pixels of the brain--one neuron at a time. So that's why we need these methods to see the whole screen, to see what's playing in our brains." The methods in question were on display in a recent study he and his graduate student, Christopher Dupre, conducted, recording the activity of all neurons in the Hydra vulgaris, a centimeter-long hydroid, while the animal swam between two pieces of glass.
Physicists know how to use quantum theory--your phone and computer give plenty of evidence of that. But knowing how to use it is a far cry from fully understanding the world the theory describes--or even what the various mathematical devices scientists use in the theory are supposed to mean. One such mathematical object, whose status physicists have long debated, is known as the quantum state. One of the most striking features of quantum theory is that its predictions are, under virtually all circumstances, probabilistic. If you set up an experiment in a laboratory, and then you use quantum theory to predict the outcomes of various measurements you might perform, the best the theory can offer is probabilities--say, a 50 percent chance that you'll get one outcome, and a 50 percent chance that you'll get a different one.
Most poker players didn't go to graduate school for cognitive linguistics. Then again, most poker players aren't Annie Duke. After pursuing a psychology Ph.D. on childhood language acquisition, Duke turned her skills to the poker table, where she has taken home over $4 million in lifetime earnings. For a time she was the leading female money winner in World Series of Poker history, and remains in the top five. She's written two books on poker strategy, and next year will release a book called Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts.
There's a weird way in which a hedge fund is a confluence of everything. There's the money of course--Two Sigma, located in lower Manhattan, manages over $50 billion, an amount that has grown 600 percent in 6 years and is roughly the size of the economy of Bulgaria. Then there are the people--financiers, philosophers, engineers--all applying themselves to unearthing inscrutable patterns that separate fortune from failure. And there is the science and engineering, much of it resting on a towering stack of data. In principle, almost any information about the real world can be relevant to a hedge fund.
Sheryl Sorby, a professor of engineering education at Ohio State University, was used to getting A's. For as long as she could remember, she found academics a breeze. She excelled in math and science in particular, but "I never thought there was a subject I couldn't do," she says matter-of-factly. So when she started engineering school, she was surprised to struggle in a course most of her counterparts considered easy: Engineering graphics. It's a first-year course that sounds a bit like a glorified drawing class to a non-engineer.
The science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein once wrote, "Each generation thinks it invented sex." He was presumably referring to the pride each generation takes in defining its own sexual practices and ethics. But his comment hit the mark in another sense: Every generation has to reinvent sex because the previous generation did a lousy job of teaching it. In the United States, the conversations we have with our children about sex are often awkward, limited, and brimming with euphemism. At school, if kids are lucky enough to live in a state that allows it, they'll get something like 10 total hours of sex education.1
"[[[When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people [to dissolve the political bands [which have connected them with another]] and [to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station [to which the laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them]]], a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires [that they should declare the causes [which impel them to the separation]]]." But how did it ever make its way into the world? At 71 words, it is composed of eight separate clauses, each anchored by its own verb, nested within one another in various arrangements. The main clause (a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires …) hangs suspended above a 50-word subordinate clause that must first be unfurled. To some linguists, Noam Chomsky among them, sentences like these illustrate an essential property of human language.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." Verse 7:7 from the Gospel of Matthew is generally considered to be a comment on prayer, but it could just as well be about the power of search. Search has become one of the key technologies of the information age, powering industry behemoths and helping us with our daily chores. But that's not where it ends. Scientists are starting to understand that search powers much of the natural world, too.