What does all the hype about AI mean in real terms? Here are a few of the most promising real-world applications for the latest developments.
One of the hottest trends in the tech world right now is artificial intelligence (AI). It can sometimes seem as if that's been true every year since the invention of the microchip - we've been constantly promised for years that true AI is just around the corner. But now, we really do seem to be closer than ever before, thanks to great steps forward in areas such as processing power, access to data and scalability.
But while bigger, better computers present great potential for AI, it can be easy to get lost in the hype and lose sight of the bigger picture. Namely, what can we practically do with this technology?
Here are few of the most interesting applications for AI that are being used right now to change our lives.
Learning on its own
Chess-playing computers have been around for a long time - it was all the way back in 1997 when IBM's Deep Blue became the first machine to defeat a human grandmaster. But it wasn't really intelligence as it still relied on humans to program it with the necessary knowledge.
But today's AI can do so much more. Recently, Google announced that the latest version of its AlphaGo AI had learned to play Go - arguably a much tougher challenge than chess - to the very highest level. But what makes it extraordinary is that it's done it without any human help. All Google's engineers did was teach it the rules of the game, then left it to figure out strategy on its own, learning through experience just like a human would.
Using this to learn a game like Go may seem trivial, but it's actually a hugely significant step forward, as it paves the way for general purpose algorithms that can take on some of the most complex problems facing humanity today.
Overcoming the language barrier
One of the biggest barriers for communicating with AIs has long been the quirks of human language. Until now, if you wanted to tell a computer to do something, you had to choose your words very specifically and speak unnaturally slowly and clearly to have a chance of being understood.
But advances in natural language processing have changed all that. We can see it already in consumer devices like Amazon Alexa, which can interpret a variety of casually-phrased requests to offer a weather forecast, order food or answer questions. But this is just the tip of the iceberg - it's already branching out into sci-fi style real-time translation and learning as it goes to understand deeper meanings that should see such solutions enter a wide range of practical business and consumer applications in the coming years.
One argument for humans over machines is that no AI can truly be creative, as it doesn't have the same appreciation for art or culture as a human. But while that may be the case, it can do a pretty convincing impression, whether it's creating art, music or literature.
AI has been able to copy the styles of famous artists for a while, but now, it can create entirely new styles from scratch. Elsewhere, AI has also been used to create music albums and even write poetry (albeit of questionable quality).
Take control of your car
No discussion about AI would be complete without a brief mention of one of the biggest and most high-profile AI applications - the self-driving car. What's fascinating about this is that big tech companies like Google, disruptive innovators like Tesla and traditional automotive manufacturers such as Ford are all looking to get involved and put their own spin on the technology - and that level of competition is driving major innovations very quickly (pun intended).
Even a couple of years ago, it seemed like this technology was a long way off, but driverless cars are now being tested on real streets all over the world, and it seems the biggest hurdles to widespread adoption are now regulatory rather than technical. It seems it's no longer a case of if they hit the mainstream, but when.
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