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Reality check: The state of AI, bots, and smart assistants

Galen Gruman | June 12, 2017
We’ve made a lot of progress in artificial intelligence over the last half century, but we’re nowhere near what the tech enthusiasts would have you believe


Artificial intelligence—in the guises of personal assistants, bots, self-driving cars, and machine learning—is hot again, dominating Silicon Valley conversations, tech media reports, and vendor trade shows.

AI is one of those technologies whose promise is resurrected periodically, but only slowly advances into the real world. I remember the dog-and-pony AI shows at IBM, MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, Thinking Machines, and the like in the mid-1980s, as well as the technohippie proponents like Jaron Lanier who often graced the covers of the era’s gee-whiz magazine like Omni.

AI is an area where much of the science is well established, but the implementation is still quite immature. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes—rather, the emperor is only now wearing underwear. There’s a lot more dressing to be done.

Thus, take all these intelligent machine/software promises with a big grain of salt. We’re decades away from a Star Trek-style conversational computer, much less the artificial intelligence of Stephen Spielberg’s A.I.

Still, there’s a lot happening in general AI. Smart developers and companies will focus on the specific areas that have real current potential and leave the rest to sci-fi writers and the gee-whiz press.


Robotics and AI are separate disciplines

For years, popular fiction has fused robots with artificial intelligence, from Gort of The Day the Earth Stood Still to the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, from the pseudo-human robots of Isaac Asimov’s I Robot novel to Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, robots are not silicon intelligences but machines that can perform mechanical tasks formerly handled by people—often more reliably, faster, and without demands for a living wage or benefits.

Robots are common in manufacturing and becoming used in hospitals for delivery and drug fulfillment (since they won’t steal drugs for personal use), but not so much in office buildings and homes.

There’ve been incredible advances lately in the field of bionics, largely driven by war veterans who’ve lost limbs in the several wars of the last two decades. We now see limbs that can respond to neural impulses and brain waves as if they were natural appendages, and it’s clear they soon won’t need all those wires and external computers to work.

Maybe one day we’ll fuse AI with robots and end up slaves to the Cylons—or worse. But not for a very long while. In the meantime, some advances in AI will help robots work better, because their software can become more sophisticated.


Pattern matching is today’s focus but often unsophisticated

Most of what is now positioned as the base of AI—product recommendations at Amazon, content recommendations at Facebook, voice recognition by Apple’s Siri, driving suggestions from Google Maps, and so on—is simply pattern matching. 


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