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) …
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.
Julian Jaynes was living out of a couple of suitcases in a Princeton dorm in the early 1970s. He must have been an odd sight there among the undergraduates, some of whom knew him as a lecturer who taught psychology, holding forth in a deep baritone voice. He was in his early 50s, a fairly heavy drinker, untenured, and apparently uninterested in tenure. "I don't think the university was paying him on a regular basis," recalls Roy Baumeister, then a student at Princeton and today a professor of psychology at Florida State University. But among the youthful inhabitants of the dorm, Jaynes was working on his masterpiece, and had been for years.
Sometimes it seems surprising that science functions at all. In 2005, medical science was shaken by a paper with the provocative title "Why most published research findings are false."1 Written by John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, it didn't actually show that any particular result was wrong. Instead, it showed that the statistics of reported positive findings was not consistent with how often one should expect to find them. As Ioannidis concluded more recently, "many published research findings are false or exaggerated, and an estimated 85 percent of research resources are wasted."2
Finding regularity in nature is the bread and butter of science. We know that reptiles lay eggs, while mammals bear live young; the Earth revolves around the sun every 365.25 days; electrons glom onto protons like bears onto honey. But what if some oddity seems to defy the laws of nature, like the platypus, an egg-laying mammal? Or a newborn baby who seems to be neither boy nor girl, but something in between? These questions fascinated the founding fathers of science, and their attempts to explain such rarities and marvels helped shape modern science.
Every emotion has a purpose--an evolutionary benefit," says Sandi Mann, a psychologist and the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good. "I wanted to know why we have this emotion of boredom, which seems like such a negative, pointless emotion." That's how Mann got started in her specialty: boredom. While researching emotions in the workplace in the 1990s, she discovered the second most commonly suppressed emotion after anger was--you guessed it--boredom. "It gets such bad press," she said.
David Chalmers, who coined the phrase "Hard Problem of consciousness," is arguably the leading modern advocate for the possibility that physical reality needs to be augmented by some kind of additional ingredient in order to explain consciousness--in particular, to account for the kinds of inner mental experience pinpointed by the Hard Problem. One of his favorite tools has been yet another thought experiment: the philosophical zombie. Unlike undead zombies, which seek out brains and generate movie franchises, philosophical zombies look and behave exactly like ordinary human beings. Indeed, they are perfectly physically identical to non‐zombie people. The difference is that they are lacking in any inner mental experience.
In case an extinction event ever wipes us out we could theoretically (at some future point) program an artificial intelligence to survive the fallout and bring us back in a genetically similar form. Some even say that bringing back a woolly mammoth, Tasmanian tiger, or passenger pigeon could help us atone for our ecological sins since we (though it is still debated for the mammoth) made those animals disappear. In July, for example, University of California, Santa Cruz conservation biologist Claudio Campagna and colleagues wrote an article arguing that the "promise of de-extinction may hasten continuing extinction." Bringing back a woolly mammoth, Tasmanian tiger, or passenger pigeon could help us atone for our ecological sins.
For these researchers, incredibly, enjoyment is not the primary reason why we play video games. In a 2012 study, titled "The Ideal Self at Play: The Appeal of Video Games That Let You Be All You Can Be," a team of five psychologists more closely examined the way in which players experiment with "type" in video games. The authors of a 2014 paper examining the role of self-determination in virtual worlds concluded that video games offer us a trio of motivational draws: the chance to "self-organize experiences and behavior and act in accordance with one's own sense of self"; the ability to "challenge and to experience one's own effectiveness"; and the opportunity to "experience community and be connected to other individuals and collectives." For these researchers, incredibly, enjoyment is not the primary reason why we play video games.
At the center of the question is a fictional test designed to distinguish between replicants and humans, called the Voight-Kampff test. He's spent his career studying the neuroscience of consciousness and emotion, specifically its conscious and unconscious processes, and says he's been influenced by Philip K. Dick's stories, particularly Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which Blade Runner is based on. There's a database of pictures, the International Affective Picture System, that includes emotionally disturbing pictures of people in road accidents, things like that, and an equivalent set of neutral pictures. Even patients who have some sort of brain damage will still show an emotional response to pictures of people that they are unable to remember, like their spouses.
When they launched, Prometheus was slightly worse than them at programming AI systems, but made up for this by being vastly faster, spending the equivalent of thousands of person-years chugging away at the problem while they chugged a Red Bull. For each such task category, the Omegas had Prometheus design a lean custom-built narrow AI software module that could do precisely such tasks and nothing else. It simply boiled down to maximizing their rate of return on investment, but normal investment strategies were a slow-motion parody of what they could do: Whereas a normal investor might be pleased with a 9 percent return per year, their MTurk investments had yielded 9 percent per hour, generating eight times more money each day. If this brought in $250 million in a week, they would have doubled their investment eight times in eight days, giving a return of 3 percent per hour--slightly worse than their MTurk start, but much more sustainable.