What is the “artificial intelligence” that is all over the media?

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the media will be aware that “artificial intelligence” is a hot topic. And it’s not just the media — China recently announced a well-funded quasi-industrial campus devoted to “artificial intelligence”.

Those of us who’ve been around for a while know that “artificial intelligence” becomes the Next Big Thing roughly every 20 years, and so are inclined to take every hype wave with a grain (or truckload) of salt. Building something algorithmic that could genuinely be considered intelligent is much, much, much harder than it looks, and I don’t think we’re even close to solving this problem. Not that we shouldn’t try, as I’ve argued earlier, but mostly for the side-effects a try will spin off.

So what is it that the media (etc.) think has happened that’s so revolutionary? I think there are two main things:

  1. There’s no question that deep learning has made progress at solving some problems that have been intractable for a while, notably object recognition and language manipulations. So it’s not surprising that there’s a sense that suddenly “artificial intelligence” has made progress. However, much of this progress has been over-hyped by the businesses doing it. For example, object recognition has this huge, poorly understood weakness that a pair of images that look to us identical can produce the correct identification of the objects they contain from one image, and complete garbage from the other, using the same algorithm. In other words, the continuity between images that somehow “ought” to be present when there are only minor pixel level changes is not detected properly by the algorithmic object recogniser. In the language space, word2vec doesn’t seem to do what it’s claimed to do, and the community has had trouble reproducing some of the early successes.
  2. Algorithms are inserting themselves into decision making settings which previously required humans in the loop. When machines supplemented human physical strength, there was an outcry about the takeover of the machines; when algorithms supplemented human mental abilities, there was an outcry about the takeover of the machines; and now that algorithms are controlling systems without humans, there’s a fresh outcry. Of course, this isn’t as new as it looks — autopilots have been flying planes better than human pilots for a while, and automated train systems are commonplace. But driverless vehicles have pushed these abilities into public view in a new, forceful way, and it’s unsettling. And militaries keep talking about automated warfare (although this seems implausible given current technology).

My sense is that these developments are all incremental, from a technical perspective if not from a social one. There are interesting new algorithms, many of them simply large-scale applications of heuristics, but nothing that qualifies as a revolution. I suspect that “artificial intelligence” is yet another bubble, as it was in the 60s and in the 80s.

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