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What the hell is AI, and do I need to worry about it yet?


By Dom Burch, managing director

January 8, 2016 | 5 min read

Artificial intelligence has an image problem if you ask me.

Putting aside that I don't really know what it is, anything labelled artificial should normally be avoided at all costs.

Food manufacturers have spent years ridding themselves of artificial colours and flavours. Nasty E numbers and man-made chemicals were so 1980s.

Even Luton Town and QPR ripped up their artificial astro turf pitches in favour of the real stuff.

The synonyms for artificial clearly don't help or endear me to it:

feigned, insincere, false, affected,mannered, unnatural, stilted,contrived, pretended, put-on, exaggerated, actorly, overdone, overripe, forced, laboured, strained, hollow, spurious...

But according to Brandwatch, artificial intelligence features in almost 50 per cent of all trend predictions for 2016.

It would appear all the cool kids are talking about it.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said he plans to build artificial intelligence (AI) to help him around the house and with his work.

On Monday the BBC reported that he'd posted on Facebook his personal challenge this year would be to build a "simple AI" similar to the butler Jarvis from the film Iron Man.

Yesterday, Apple made its first startup purchase of the year, acquiring Emotient, a San Diego artificial intelligence specialist.

Emotient uses its AI technology to read the emotions on the faces of people, primarily for advertising and marketing purposes, such as measuring a customer’s response to ads and products.

It adds to a growing string of artificial intelligence technology purchases Apple has made over the last few years.

Last October, Apple acquired Perceptio, a startup that develops technology that enables smartphones to use artificial intelligence without the need to share data with a company’s servers.

That same month Apple also bought out Britain's VocalIQ, a company working on voice-recognition tech that can interpret dialogue and natural language.

Right, we're all agreed the big boys are all over this like a rash.

But what the hell is it? And should I worry about it yet?

The BBC has a good timeline covering the last 70 years.

And notes that the quest for artificial intelligence began with the idea that computers would one day be able to think like us.

Ambitious predictions attracted generous funding, but after a few decades there was little to show for it.

But in the last 25 years, new approaches to AI, coupled with advances in technology, mean that we may now be on the brink of 'realising those pioneers’ dreams'.

They could be right.

Last year I attended a talk at SXSW on 'digital consciousness' with Martine Rothblatt called 'AI And The Future Of 'Self'.

The idea of 'digital consciousness' was explained as taking our human preferences, memories and behaviours – and putting them into a digital being.

Social posts and shares, e-commerce behaviour and search data are all huge resources for collating people's mannerisms to make a digital replica of consciousness. Basically, creating a mind clone.

Rothblatt suggested in the future we'd be divorcing our virtual selves, ending up in court together to agree an amicable split.

OK, now I'm feeling anxious.

The idea of having a digital version of my mind floating around the universe is mildly worrying.

What if it can read my mind, and tell you all what I'm really thinking.

Imagine if I got hacked.

That could be embarrassing.

When quizzed at the time, Rothblatt was clear that this doesn't mean you have multiple identities, you still have one – your conscious just isn't constrained to being inside your body any more.

Oh. That's alright then.

So I just use my digital self to do all the crap I can't be arsed doing.

A slave or servant then.

No wonder they want a bloody divorce.

I think I'll go back to working on my own intelligence for now, and leave the AI for the cool kids.

Follow Dom on Twitter @domburch

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