A myopic perspective on AI

September 2, 2002 by Ray Kurzweil

In a recent Red Herring magazine article, writer Geoffrey James said “pundits can’t stop hyping the business opportunities of artificial intelligence” and described AI as a “technological backwater.” Ray Kurzweil challenges this view, citing “hundreds of examples of narrow AI deeply integrated into our information-based economy” and “many applications beginning to combine multiple methodologies,” a step towards the eventual achievement of “strong AI” (human-level intelligence in a machine).

Geoffrey James’ myopic perspective on artificial intelligence ("Out of Their Minds," August 2002) harkens back to the 1980s, when many observers equated AI with the single technique of "expert systems." It has always been my view that AI properly refers to a broad panoply of disciplines that emulate intelligent systems and behaviors. The reason that technologists don’t typically describe their projects as "using AI" is the same reason they don’t describe them as "using computer science."

Either of these descriptions are too broad to be useful. Far more informative are the many subfields of AI such as robotics, natural language processing, character recognition, "quant" investing, etc.

There are today hundreds of examples of narrow AI deeply integrated into our information-based economy. Routing emails and cell phone calls, automatically diagnosing electrocardiograms and blood cell images, directing cruise missiles and weapon systems, automatically landing airplanes, conducting pattern-recognition based financial transactions, detecting credit card fraud, and a myriad of other automated tasks are all successful examples of AI in use today. Many major industries (e.g., medical drug discovery, product design of almost any product, including computers themselves) are increasingly reliant on these intelligent algorithms.

To call this a "backwater" is hardly a reasonable perspective. These AI-based technologies simply did not exist or were in formative stages only a decade ago. James is like those visitors to the rain forest who plaintively ask "where are all these species I’ve heard so much about?" when there are fifty species of ant alone within fifty yards. Alan Turing predicted this, saying that intelligent systems would become so deeply integrated in our society as to be all but invisible.

As an aside, I found it interesting that James’ primary example of a successful AI company is ScanSoft, which used to be called Kurzweil Computer Products, which I founded in 1974.

With virtually every industry extensively using intelligent algorithms, the trend now is that the "narrowness" of the intelligence of these systems is gradually becoming less narrow, with many applications beginning to combine multiple methodologies. "Strong AI" is not a separate endeavor; rather it represents the culmination of these ongoing and accelerating trends.

It will always be easy to scoff at AI as long as there are tasks at which humans are better, but the many derivatives of AI research are becoming increasingly vital to our economy and civilization.