From Star Trek to I, Robot, sci-fi has always loved artificial intelligence; but smart machines are no longer purely the stuff of fiction. AI is already a part of our daily lives. If you’ve ever had Facebook automatically recognise your face in a photo or browsed your Netflix or Amazon recommendations, then you’ve used a form of AI.
But the potential for this technology goes much further than that.
Artificial intelligence refers to intelligent behaviour by machines. So rather than a purely automated system, like the self-checkout in your local supermarket, intelligent machines can perceive their environment, solve problems and learn as they go along.
We’ve all heard about the advent of self-driving cars, but AI also has applications in medicine, logistics, and just about anything else you can think of. Research is currently underway to exploit AI in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients. We’re even seeing the emergence of AI in education and tutoring.
Take LipNet, for example. Funded by Google’s DeepMind, researchers have found that this AI lipreading service displays 93.4% accuracy when reading lips, compared with between 20-60% for professional human lip-readers. By watching videos of people speaking, the system teaches itself which letters correspond to which mouth movements.
This research took place in a lab-based setting, so there’s some way to go before LipNet can be used by hearing impaired people in the real world. Nonetheless, the findings demonstrate the potential of machine learning to provide life-changing services.
The Downside of Intelligence
However, AI does pose some challenging questions? What could new technologies mean for employment? From lorry drivers to journalists, intelligent machines have the potential to replace human beings in some industries. And what of the ethical implications? In creating a truly ‘intelligent’ machine, might we eventually cross certain lines?
And then we must also consider the potential risks inherent in AI. A number of high profile figures, including Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, have recently highlighted the importance of developing this technology responsibly.
These are all issues that academics and policy-makers are seeking to address. Last year, academics gave evidence to the House of Lords’ select committee on artificial intelligence, touching on the possibilities and risks inherent within the field.
Are We There Yet?
The group highlighted the UK’s position as the frontrunner in AI technologies, but cautioned that general AI was still some way away and that progress would need to be managed safely and ethically.
The group explained that progress on general AI – the type that could truly revolutionise our daily lives – has been slow, and that we’re still some way away from achieving truly groundbreaking applications.
And indeed, it’s important to note that machine learning has not yet reached the lofty heights of Hollywood portrayals. AI is often hyped up, but there’s still debate as to how far and how quickly this research can change the world.
Ultimately, AI is a field that offers a huge amount of potential, but we must also sound a note of caution. As with any new technology, it’s important to be mindful of the implications and to manage our expectations for the near future.
So we may not be enjoying robot butlers anytime soon, but there’s still plenty to be excited about. Despite the uncertainties, artificial intelligence will always inspire intriguing and thought-provoking ideas. And one day, who knows? Those ideas could become reality.
A version of this article was originally published in The Oxford Mail