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Machines Like Us

Is “deep learning” a revolution in artificial intelligence?

Monday, 26 November 2012

Can a new technique known as deep learning revolutionize artificial intelligence, as yesterday’s front-page article at The New York Times suggests? There is good reason to be excited about deep learning, a sophisticated “machine learning” algorithm that far exceeds many of its predecessors in its abilities to recognize syllables and images. But there’s also good reason to be skeptical. While the Times reports that “advances in an artificial intelligence technology that can recognize patterns offer the possibility of machines that perform human activities like seeing, listening and thinking,” deep learning take us, at best, only a small step toward the creation of truly intelligent machines. Deep learning is important work, with immediate practical applications. But it’s not as breathtaking as the front-page story in the New York Times seems to suggest.

The technology on which the Times focusses, deep learning, has its roots in a tradition of “neural networks” that goes back to the late nineteen-fifties. At that time, Frank Rosenblatt attempted to build a kind of mechanical brain called the Perceptron, which was billed as “a machine which senses, recognizes, remembers, and responds like the human mind.” The system was capable of categorizing (within certain limits) some basic shapes like triangles and squares. Crowds were amazed by its potential, and even The New Yorker was taken in, suggesting that this “remarkable machine…[was] capable of what amounts to thought.”

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