SOMETIMES it is perceived as a figment of the far future. But artificial intelligence (AI) is today’s great obsession in Silicon Valley. Last year technology companies spent $8.5 billion on deals and investments in artificial intelligence, four times more than in 2010. Nearly all of the world’s technology giants, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Baidu, are competing fiercely to hire the best AI experts, snap up start-ups and pour money into research. What accounts for the tech elite’s sudden AI-phoria?
The technology has not always been so popular. The field was largely ignored and underfunded during the “AI winter” of the 1980s and 1990s. At that time AI research conducted at universities proved to be disappointingly slow and irrelevant to companies’ bottom lines. Now, however, the chill is gone. Progress in AI is accelerating. Recently Google generated lots of headlines when DeepMind, a start-up it acquired in 2014, helped train a computer to repeatedly beat the world champion at Go, a board game. This has sparked both fear and hope for the future of AI: hope for fat profits and improving people’s lives through technology; fear about how society will cope with the dislocation AI could bring.
AI is already starting to generate big financial gains for companies, which helps explain firms’ growing investment in developing AI capabilities. Machine-learning, in which computers become smarter by processing large data-sets, currently has many profitable consumer-facing applications, including image recognition in photographs, spam filtering and those that help to better target advertisements to web surfers. Many of tech firms’ most ambitious projects, including building self-driving cars and designing virtual personal assistants that can understand and execute complex tasks, also rely on artificial intelligence, especially machine-learning and robotics. This has prompted tech firms to try to hire up as much of the top talent as they can from universities, where the best AI experts research and teach. Some worry about the potential of a brain drain from academia into the private sector.
The biggest concern, however, is that one firm corners the majority of the talent in artificial intelligence, creating an intellectual monopoly of sorts. Google looks best positioned to do this: between its Google Brain project and its acquisition of DeepMind, it has some of the brightest human brains working on AI. Because superior AI systems are able to learn and improve more quickly, the firms that develop an early edge in artificial intelligence may reap the greatest rewards and erect barriers to entry that smaller firms will find hard to overcome. In December Elon Musk and several other tech leaders pledged $1 billion to help fund OpenAI, a research lab that will make public all of its findings, to ensure there is an entity that is working on developing AI on behalf of the public good and not just its own profits. Today AI is the domain of tech geeks, but its future matters to everyone.
Read our full report about tech firms and artificial intelligence here
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