Humans still have edge on machine

Progress: Industry finds artificial intelligence is less about replacing people and more about making life easier for them.

January 01, 2001|By Katie Hafner | Katie Hafner,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Just what constitutes artificial intelligence has always been a matter of dispute. And the terms of the argument change with each new advance in computer science.

Seen one way, as the effort to produce machines whose output cannot be distinguished from that of a human, artificial intelligence, or AI, is still very far away.

But from another perspective, it is all around us.

Thirty years ago, for instance, speech recognition was an artificial-intelligence problem of the first order. Today, it is commonplace, a fact that is evident to anyone who has called the United Airlines flight information line or has used speech transcription software.

"These things are considered AI before you do them," said Danny Hillis, who has been working in the field for years. "And after you do it, they're considered engineering."

Other fruits of artificial intelligence research abound as well. Whether you are struggling to beat your portable digital organizer at chess, watching your word processing program correct your spelling or playing a video game, you are witnessing the ways in which artificial intelligence has insinuated itself into daily life.

"AI is becoming more important as it has become less conspicuous, and it's less conspicuous because it's everywhere, but often under the surface," said Patrick Winston, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was the director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab there for 25 years.

Since the time when the first work was being done by Marvin Minsky, John McCarthy, Winston and others at MIT in the 1950s and 1960s, computer scientists have generally agreed that artificial intelligence would arrive incrementally.

"We're engineering AI one piece at a time," said Hillis, a former student of Minsky's and chairman of Applied Minds, a tech start-up in Glendale, Calif.

Hillis and others said machine intelligence currently in evidence falls along a spectrum. At the less intelligent end are things such as smart washing machines and coffee pots -- appliances that can figure out how dirty a load of clothes is or when to turn off a coffee warmer. Experts generally agree that such appliances are the product of rather sophisticated microprocessors and sensors, not evidence of artificial intelligence.

At the other end are machines whose output is genuinely difficult to distinguish from a human's, like I.B.M.'s chess-playing computer, Deep Blue, and Aaron, a robotic artist that produces paintings that could easily pass for human work.

And somewhere in the middle are speech recognition programs, used in lieu of word processors; collaborative filtering software, like that used by Amazon.com to make purchase recommendations; and search engines that respond to questions phrased in full sentences, not just search terms.

One reason for the proliferation of machine intelligence in the commercial world is the seeding of the computer industry with artificial-intelligence researchers who have moved beyond academia and taken jobs at high-tech companies.

Microsoft, for example, employs about 80 artificial-intelligence researchers, many of whom came from universities. For several years, Microsoft has sold its Office software with various embedded intelligence features, like the automatic correction of frequently misspelled words and the Answer Wizard, which anticipates the needs of users who look up topics in the electronic documentation.

Microsoft's next big step into the marketplace with a product that incorporates artificial intelligence will be its Outlook Mobile Manager, a system that scrutinizes each incoming e-mail message, does an automatic synopsis, throws away extraneous words and abbreviates others, then sends the message to the user's mobile device. The product is scheduled for release next year.

"It's what a great secretary would do," said Craig Mundie, Microsoft's senior vice president for advanced strategies.

Researchers in artificial intelligence at Microsoft also are working on a more general effort called the Attentional User Interfaces and Systems Project, which includes a project for continually monitoring streams of data like e-mail, voice mail, Internet news alerts and instant messages.

Other graduates of university-based artificial intelligence programs have started companies of their own. In 1983, Hillis co-founded the Thinking Machines Corp., a supercomputer company that was bought by other companies in the 1990s. In 1986, Winston and three colleagues at MIT started Ascent Technology in Cambridge, Mass., to apply the research they had been doing to help airports solve scheduling and allocation problems such as gate assignments for aircraft.

Winston said the first efforts of artificial intelligence, in the 1980s, erred. "We blundered about what we thought AI was going to be good for, which was replacing people. What we discovered was that's not the commercial appeal of AI It's about making things possible that weren't possible with people alone."

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