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What do we mean when we say Artificial Intelligence?

In Silicon Valley, there is no field in which investments are greater. And the frontier of deep learning, a possibility for machines to learn autonomously, tends to make futurologists very nervous. But some people think we won't have anything to worry about.

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Every day, we interact with forms of AI (artificial intelligence): the monotonous voice of Siri from our i-Phones, self-driving cars, and facial recognition of friends in Facebook pictures.

One unique, all-encompassing definition of AI does not exist. We could say that it is the science that studies how to create intelligent machines, but that would be limited, considering all of the disciplines that these studies include: pure computer science, cognitive science and neurology.

The concept of a “robot”, which means a machine (a non-human subject, at any rate) able to perfectly imitate human behaviour, is deeply rooted not only in science, but also mythology, alchemy and science fiction. We can consider the goblins from Jewish folklore or the robot band designed by the inventor Al-Jazari in 1200.

The man who put the main characteristics of artificial intelligence in order was Alan Turing, creator of the famous test (1950) that defines AI as a machine that can convince a human that it is a human. (This test was passed by a software in 2014, and this provoked discussions and debate).

At that moment, the field of AI research that is making the most progress is deep learning, which studies how to teach computers to learn. Apple, Google, Microsoft and other Silicon Valley companies are all concentrating their investments in this direction. This is the principle behind facial recognition programs, and it is explained in a video by CGPGrey (also on the Aeon site): “Don’t think of a programmer who develops bots. Instead, think of a programmer who develops a bot that teaches itself to do things that the programmer would never be able to tell it how to do.”

Thanks to the deep learning processes, we can imagine that in a short time programs, apps and search engines will be replaced a single personal assistant able to capture information from all of these functions and synthesize them into the role of assistance, which will be increasingly personalised depending on our needs, preferences and habits. And the first direct applications will be shopping and tourism.

Remember all of those stories in which there is a man with a pentagram and holy water? He is always sure he can control the demon, but it never works. Well, with artificial intelligence, we are summoning a demon.

However, speaking of shopping, what will our buying power look like when human employees are completely replaced by a mechanical workforce? The future of work in the AI era has experts taking sides. According to information from the Bank of America, about Guardian 47% of jobs can be automated. We know that in the 1800s, electrical energy eliminated the need for a person to light the street lamps, but it also created many more specialised jobs in the electrical sector. However, the current change could turn out to be much more radical.

Each technology does away with obsolete jobs and replaces them with jobs requiring higher qualifications. But what happens when the first to be unemployed are those with lower qualifications, and they have difficulty finding a new job? We are considering workers such as truck drivers or care-givers?

Roberto Cingolani, the physicist “loaned to robotics” and director of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia di Genova, one of the three most important AI centres, is optimistic despite recognising the difficulties. Though he acknowledges that technological revolutions are always critical for weaker social classes, he believes that we will be able to live with the change, creating new rules for ourselves, and most of all, learning to be more adaptable.

The famous futurologist Martin Ford is more sceptical. He thinks that we are changing so quickly that change will be everywhere and all at once, with a gigantic impact. The buffer solution, according to Ford, will be basic income, which will become reality only after a time of strong economic crisis.

As usual, the debate is between the optimists and the fatalists. One of the latter group, Elon Musk elaborated a horror novel scenario: “Remember all of those stories in which there is a man with a pentagram and holy water? He is always sure he can control the demon, but it never works. Well, with artificial intelligence, we are summoning a demon.”

Between the demons and the robots, there are always those looking for the famous third option: JP Gownder, author of the report “The future of jobs: 2025”, is clear and calm: “We will not be replaced by robots, but we will have to learn to work with them.” A peaceful collaboration, he thinks. We’ll see.

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