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Machines Like Us

Could mankind fall to artificial intelligence?

Sunday, 25 November 2012

A couple of careers ago, in 1996 if I recall correctly, I had a fascinating discussion over lunch one day with author Bruce Sterling about the challenges he, and other authors like him, faced as a writer of hard science fiction — the challenges of extrapolating from today’s technology and social structure into a not-too-distant future.

The problem, he said, was that the inventors were inventing too fast; they were making it difficult to come up with “crazy” technologies in his stories.

The 2000 recession was a correction of expectation, and 9/11 distracted us, to focus on managing the repercussions of the re-emergence of long seething Middle East anger. When the 2008 recession began, it seemed like a correction in financial hubris, but the economic resistance to recovery may signal a deeper conundrum. Though the latest recession dented the public’s exuberance for the next new thing, researchers and inventors were too focused to notice and have continued to make great strides in their forays into our future.

This week, John Markoff, who chronicles Silicon Valley for The New York Times, reported on the strides researchers have made in artificial intelligence. Though artificial intelligence research lost its public cache in the 1990s as the hyped promises of speech recognition, machine translation and thinking machines based on massively parallel computing were slow to manifest, the researchers plowed ahead. Today we experience the results, and speech recognition is the best example.

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