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) …
It's 6 p.m. in Tempe, Arizona and pitch-black outside. I'm standing in the middle of a five-lane thoroughfare, among a group of people too numerous for the narrow median. We got trapped here after a brigade of left-turning cars preempted our passage--that's a thing that happens in cities like this one, designed for automobiles over pedestrians. An SUV pulls up as we cower inches away, waiting for the next traffic-light cycle. The driver's window is rolled down to allow some of the cool night air in.
The trucks that roam the highways of the Australian outback are a lot bigger than the average 18-wheeler. Instead of towing one container, these road trains, as Australians refer to them, pull at least three self-tracking semitrailers behind them, which follow each other like train carriages. The trailers are packed with heavy goods--cattle, gas, coal, cars--and sent roaring through the continent's interior to deliver supplies to coastal cities. Fully loaded, road trains weigh up to 120 tons, and materialize on the shimmering horizon of outback roads as great mechanical beasts. As they pass at 70 miles per hour, you can feel the air velocity generated by the machine trying to suck you under the rig. Road trains are as much a part of the outback as red dirt or Akubra hats, signifiers of a rugged, Mad Max mythology that has come to define Australia's interior in the global imagination.
When I brought the robot home from the Apple Store, I knew I was inviting a new kind of strangeness into our lives. My wife worried about giving our 4-year-old son a(nother) digital thing, a "smart" thing. I worried that he wouldn't know what to make of it. Or that his little sister would break it. Or that I'd be jealous.
The announcement throws down the gauntlet for other carmakers and technology companies that are working on similar technology. Nearly every carmaker has committed to some level of autonomy in their vehicles over the next few years. But most of them are pursuing much lower levels of autonomy within their vehicles. There's a scale that's come into use to describe these different technologies, which appears in the chart below. Most car companies--Tesla included--are deploying Levels 2 or 3, in which humans and cars switch off driving the car.
Several years ago, there were some concerns about Google's profitability, as attention shifted to mobile devices, where ads are puny, annoying, and a more measly source of revenue on a cost-per-click basis. Today, cost-per-click is indeed declining. But Google has more than made up for the lost revenue by increasing total clicks on ads in mobile search results and YouTube videos, especially in Asia. While the Alphabet family includes some precocious younger children, like a growing cloud business and the self-driving car division Waymo, Alphabet is basically an advertising company, with nearly 90 percent of its revenue coming from ads. There are at least two trends that are driving the company's gains: its utter dominance as the discovery mechanism for information online and the inexorable shift to computers--particularly the ones in our pockets and purses--away from print and television.
If you squint a little, you can see the Apple Store clerk as a cyborg, a hybrid of human and machine. Each store is flooded with smartphone-wielding salespeople who are able to help customers with everything from technical questions and support to purchase and checkout. There are no cash registers with lines of customers waiting with products pulled from the piles on the shelves. The store is a showroom of products to explore. When you know what you want, a salesperson fetches it from the back room.
At a large technology conference in Toronto this fall, Anna Goldenberg, a star in the field of computer science and genetics, described how artificial intelligence is revolutionizing medicine. Algorithms based on the AI principle of machine learning now can outperform dermatologists at recognizing skin cancers in blemish photos. They can beat cardiologists in detecting arrhythmias in EKGs. In Goldenberg's own lab, algorithms can be used to identify hitherto obscure subcategories of adult-onset brain cancer, estimate the survival rates of breast-cancer patients, and reduce unnecessary thyroid surgeries. It was a stunning taste of what's to come.
It makes a certain kind of sense that the game's connoisseurs might have wondered if they'd seen glimpses of the occult in those three so-called ghost moves. Unlike something like tic-tac-toe, which is straightforward enough that the optimal strategy is always clear-cut, Go is so complex that new, unfamiliar strategies can feel astonishing, revolutionary, or even uncanny. Unfortunately for ghosts, now it's computers that are revealing these goosebump-inducing moves. As many will remember, AlphaGo--a program that used machine learning to master Go--decimated world champion Ke Jie earlier this year. Then, the program's creators at Google's DeepMind let the program continue to train by playing millions of games against itself.
There's a famous viral video in which a diver slowly swims up to a clump of rock and seaweed, only for part of that clump to turn white, open its eye, and jet away, squirting ink behind it. Few videos so dramatically illustrate an octopus's mastery of camouflage. There are obvious benefits to having materials that can adaptively hide the outlines of vehicles and robots by breaking up their outlines. Or, as the roboticist Cecilia Laschi notes in a related commentary, biologists could use camouflaged robots to better spy on animals in their natural habitats.
The journalist turns to the assembled crowd and asks: Should we build houses on the ocean? The people in this room have a particular talent: They dream up far-out answers to crucial problems. The dearth of housing in crowded and productive coastal cities is a crucial problem. At the group's invitation, I was proposing my own moonshot idea, despite deep fear that the group would mock it.