Special Report

Artificial Intelligence: Friendly or Frightening?

I, Robot
People often think of artificial intelligence as something akin to the being from the film "I, Robot" depicted here, but experts are divided on what the future actually holds. (Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

It's a Saturday morning in June at the Royal Society in London. Computer scientists, public figures and reporters have gathered to witness or take part in a decades-old challenge. Some of the participants are flesh and blood; others are silicon and binary. Thirty human judges sit down at computer terminals, and begin chatting. The goal? To determine whether they're talking to a computer program or a real person.

The event, organized by the University of Reading, was a rendition of the so-called Turing test, developed 65 years ago by British mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing as a way to assess whether a machine is capable of intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human. The recently released film "The Imitation Game," about Turing's efforts to crack the German Enigma code during World War II, is a reference to the scientist's own name for his test.

In the London competition, one computerized conversation program, or chatbot, with the personality of a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy named Eugene Goostman, rose above and beyond the other contestants. It fooled 33 percent of the judges into thinking it was a human being. At the time, contest organizers and the media hailed the performance as an historic achievement, saying the chatbot was the first machine to "pass" the Turing test. [Infographic: History of Artificial Intelligence]

Decades of research and speculative fiction have led to today's computerized assistants such as Apple's Siri. (Image credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist)

When people think of artificial intelligence (AI) — the study of the design of intelligent systems and machines — talking computers like Eugene Goostman often come to mind. But most AI researchers are focused less on producing clever conversationalists and more on developing intelligent systems that make people's lives easier — from software that can recognize objects and animals, to digital assistants that cater to, and even anticipate, their owners' needs and desires.

But several prominent thinkers, including the famed physicist Stephen Hawking and billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, warn that the development of AI should be cause for concern.

Thinking machines

The notion of intelligent automata, as friend or foe, dates back to ancient times.

"The idea of intelligence existing in some form that's not human seems to have a deep hold in the human psyche," said Don Perlis, a computer scientist who studies artificial intelligence at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Reports of people worshipping mythological human likenesses and building humanoid automatons date back to the days of ancient Greece and Egypt, Perlis told Live Science. AI has also featured prominently in pop culture, from the sentient computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" to Arnold Schwarzenegger's robot character in "The Terminator" films. [A Brief History of Artificial Intelligence]

Since the field of AI was officially founded in the mid-1950s, people have been predicting the rise of conscious machines, Perlis said. Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, recently hired to be a director of engineering at Google, refers to a point in time known as "the singularity," when machine intelligence exceeds human intelligence. Based on the exponential growth of technology according to Moore's Law (which states that computing processing power doubles approximately every two years), Kurzweil has predicted the singularity will occur by 2045.

But cycles of hype and disappointment — the so-called "winters of AI" — have characterized the history of artificial intelligence, as grandiose predictions failed to come to fruition. The University of Reading Turing test is just the latest example: Many scientists dismissed the Eugene Goostman performance as a parlor trick; they said the chatbot had gamed the system by assuming the persona of a teenager who spoke English as a foreign language. (In fact, many researchers now believe it's time to develop an updated Turing test.)

Nevertheless, a number of prominent science and technology experts have expressed worry that humanity is not doing enough to prepare for the rise of artificial general intelligence, if and when it does occur. Earlier this week, Hawking issued a dire warning about the threat of AI.

"The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race," Hawking told the BBC, in response to a question about his new voice recognition system, which uses artificial intelligence to predict intended words. (Hawking has a form of the neurological disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, and communicates using specialized speech software.)

And Hawking isn't alone. Musk told an audience at MIT that AI is humanity's "biggest existential threat." He also once tweeted, "We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes."

In March, Musk, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and actor Ashton Kutcher jointly invested $40 million in the company Vicarious FPC, which aims to create a working artificial brain. At the time, Musk told CNBC that he'd like to "keep an eye on what's going on with artificial intelligence," adding, "I think there's potentially a dangerous outcome there."

Fears of AI turning into sinister killing machines, like Arnold Schwarzenegger's character from the "Terminator" films, are nothing new. (Image credit: Warner Bros.)

But despite the fears of high-profile technology leaders, the rise of conscious machines — known as "strong AI" or "general artificial intelligence" — is likely a long way off, many researchers argue.

"I don't see any reason to think that as machines become more intelligent … which is not going to happen tomorrow — they would want to destroy us or do harm," said Charlie Ortiz, head of AI at the Burlington, Massachusetts-based software company Nuance Communications."Lots of work needs to be done before computers are anywhere near that level," he said.

Machines with benefits

Artificial intelligence is a broad and active area of research, but it's no longer the sole province of academics; increasingly, companies are incorporating AI into their products.

And there's one name that keeps cropping up in the field: Google. From smartphone assistants to driverless cars, the Bay Area-based tech giant is gearing up to be a major player in the future of artificial intelligence.

Google has been a pioneer in the use of machine learning — computer systems that can learn from data, as opposed to blindly following instructions. In particular, the company uses a set of machine-learning algorithms, collectively referred to as "deep learning," that allow a computer to do things such as recognize patterns from massive amounts of data.

For example, in June 2012, Google created a neural network of 16,000 computers that trained itself to recognize a cat by looking at millions of cat images from YouTube videos, The New York Times reported. (After all, what could be more uniquely human than watching cat videos?)

The project, called Google Brain, was led by Andrew Ng, an artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford University who is now the chief scientist for the Chinese search engine Baidu, which is sometimes referred to as "China's Google."

Today, deep learning is a part of many products at Google and at Baidu, including speech recognition, Web search and advertising, Ng told Live Science in an email.

Current computers can already complete many tasks typically performed by humans. But possessing humanlike intelligence remains a long way off, Ng said. "I think we're still very far from the singularity. This isn't a subject that most AI researchers are working toward."

Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at NYU who has written extensively about AI, agreed. "I don't think we're anywhere near human intelligence [for machines]," Marcus told Live Science. In terms of simulating human thinking, "we are still in the piecemeal era."

Instead, companies like Google focus on making technology more helpful and intuitive. And nowhere is this more evident than in the smartphone market.

Artificial intelligence in your pocket

In the 2013 movie "Her," actor Joaquin Phoenix's character falls in love with his smartphone operating system, "Samantha," a computer-based personal assistant who becomes sentient. The film is obviously a product of Hollywood, but experts say that the movie gets at least one thing right: Technology will take on increasingly personal roles in people's daily lives, and will learn human habits and predict people's needs.

Anyone with an iPhone is probably familiar with Apple's digital assistant Siri, first introduced as a feature on the iPhone 4S in October 2011. Siri can answer simple questions, conduct Web searches and perform other basic functions. Microsoft's equivalent is Cortana, a digital assistant available on Windows phones. And Google has the Google app, available for Android phones or iPhones, which bills itself as providing "the information you want, when you need it."

For example, Google Now can show traffic information during your daily commute, or give you shopping list reminders while you're at the store. You can ask the app questions, such as "should I wear a sweater tomorrow?" and it will give you the weather forecast. And, perhaps a bit creepily, you can ask it to "show me all my photos of dogs" (or "cats," "sunsets" or a even a person's name), and the app will find photos that fit that description, even if you haven't labeled them as such.

Given how much personal data from users Google stores in the form of emails, search histories and cloud storage, the company's deep investments in artificial intelligence may seem disconcerting. For example, AI could make it easier for the company to deliver targeted advertising, which some users already find unpalatable. And AI-based image recognition software could make it harder for users to maintain anonymity online.

But the company, whose motto is "Don't be evil," claims it can address potential concerns about its work in AI by conducting research in the open and collaborating with other institutions, company spokesman Jason Freidenfelds told Live Science. In terms of privacy concerns, specifically, he said, "Google goes above and beyond to make sure your information is safe and secure," calling data security a "top priority."

While a phone that can learn your commute, answer your questions or recognize what a dog looks like may seem sophisticated, it still pales in comparison with a human being. In some areas, AI is no more advanced than a toddler. Yet, when asked, many AI researchers admit that the day when machines rival human intelligence will ultimately come. The question is, are people ready for it?

In the film "Transcendence," Johnny Depp's character uploads his mind to a computer, but it doesn't end well. (Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Taking AI seriously

In the 2014 film "Transcendence," actor Johnny Depp's character uploads his mind into a computer, but his hunger for power soon threatens the autonomy of his fellow humans. [Super-Intelligent Machines: 7 Robotic Futures]

Hollywood isn't known for its scientific accuracy, but the film's themes don't fall on deaf ears. In April, when "Trancendence" was released, Hawking and fellow physicist Frank Wilczek, cosmologist Max Tegmark and computer scientist Stuart Russell published an op-ed in The Huffington Post warning of the dangers of AI.

"It's tempting to dismiss the notion of highly intelligent machines as mere science fiction," Hawking and others wrote in the article."But this would be a mistake, and potentially our worst mistake ever."

Undoubtedly, AI could have many benefits, such as helping to aid the eradication of war, disease and poverty, the scientists wrote. Creating intelligent machines would be one of the biggest achievements in human history, they wrote, but it "might also be [the] last." Considering that the singularity may be the best or worst thing to happen to humanity, not enough research is being devoted to understanding its impacts, they said.

As the scientists wrote, "Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all."

Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.