Innovation

10 things you need to know about artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is actually being used more than you might think. Here's what you need to know about the current state of AI and where it's going.

Image: iStockphoto/carloscastilla

Ever since the the dawn of modern computing technology, scientists and innovators have been trying to develop a computer that can think like a human. With the goal of making human thought and decision making a mechanical process, algorithms and networks have grown to form the basis of what is now known as artificial intelligence (AI).

Once laughed away as merely the plot of a science fiction movie, AI is now a very real, usable tool. A plethora of new startup companies are being founded on the basis of brining AI technology to the masses, and bigger corporations are joining the conversation too.

While the AI market is growing rapidly, the technology still has its challenges, like being constantly misunderstood.

Here are ten things you need to know about AI.

1. AI can trace its roots pretty far back

For many of us, the idea of AI conjures images of a robot or other anthropomorphic machines that can think and reason as well as a human can. The idea of a machine-man is seen as early as some of the Greek Myths, such as the golden robots of Hephaestus. Additionally, stories of alchemy in the Middle Ages alluded to the placing of the human brain in inanimate objects. Also, some religions that worship physical statues believe the statues to be possessing of human thought and emotion.

2. Alan Turing was a huge influence on AI

In 1950, Alan Turing published his paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, where he tried to figure out if a machine could win what he called "The Imitation Game," which is also the name of the recent film about Turing. The test had a computer try to distinguish between the gender of two players. The paper also first introduced the Turing Test. Computing Machinery and Intelligence is largely regarded as the seminal work on AI.

3. Formal AI research started in the 1950s

While AI research was happening prior, it didn't become a formal academic research discipline until the The Dartmouth Conference of 1956. Adoption of the name "artificial intelligence" was encouraged by organizer John McCarthy. McCarthy continued contributing to the work of AI in many universities until his death in 2011.

4. Natural language processing is key to AI

One of the major goals of AI is getting a computer to understand and subsequently communicate in natural languages, a field called natural language processing (NLP). The computer must take natural human languages, like English or Spanish, and glean insight that it can process.

5. Autonomous vehicles need AI

One of the biggest technological advancements in transportation over the last few years has been the creation of autonomous vehicles, or vehicles that can pilot themselves. New vehicles like Google's driverless cars, and some autonomous drones wouldn't be possible without some of the top AI technology we have today.

6. Investors are funding new AI companies

What's considered a "hot" market for startups typically ebbs and flows, but it's obvious that AI is definitely a hot market. According to CB Insights, the number of new startups being funded in the space is growing. Some companies, like Sentient Technologies, have raised more than $100 million in funding after a few years in operation.

7. Big tech companies are betting on AI

Small startup companies aren't solely responsible for the surge in AI. Major tech giants are investing in the space and acquiring AI companies as well. IBM's Watson is doing everything from working with hospitals to cooking meals. Google made news when it acquired AI startup DeepMind for $400 million, and Facebook recently purchased Wit.ai.

8. AI-powered robots can think together

The CoCoRo (Collective Cognitive Robotics) Project in Europe has developed robots with artificial intelligence that can function in unison like a school of fish. The robots can search an area, scan the environment, and send information among one another.

9. Some robots can socialize

A robot called Kismet, from MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, can interact by recognising human body language and tone of voice and reposting according to that input. Kismet was developed Cynthia Breazeal in the 1990s.

10. AI is polarizing

Few technologies are as contentious as AI. On one hand, major companies and universities are pouring money into AI research and development. Conversely, scientist Stephen Hawking warned that AI could be the end of humankind. Additionally, Elon Musk and Bill Gates have both voiced negative opinions on AI. Whatever camp you fall into, there probably won't be a unified opinion on AI anytime soon.

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Conner Forrest is Enterprise Editor for TechRepublic. He covers startups and enterprise technology and is passionate about the convergence of tech and culture.

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