Silicon Valley is Obsessed (and Wrong) About Artificial Intelligence

white drone hovering in blue skyIn the same way that Apple gathers the world’s press for star-studded product reveals, this May Google has been showing off its vision for the future at I/O 2016, officially billed as “an immersive, three-day experience focused on exploring the next generation of technology, mobile and beyond.”

During the conference, Google offered new looks at futuristic new products and services. There’s Allo, an artificial intelligence-powered messaging app. Daydream is a mobile-powered virtual reality headset; Duo is Google’s answer to Apple’s FaceTime; and Google Home is a home automation device that will soon be competing with Amazon Echo.

While Google hopes these new devices and services will generate revenue in the short term, the company has much more ambitious long term plans. In an April 28 post on the official Google blog, Google CEO Sundar Pichai laid out plans to give birth to the world’s first artificial intelligence.

“Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the ‘device’ to fade away. Over time, the computer itself — whatever its form factor — will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world,” Pichai wrote.

Artificial intelligence is a term that gets thrown around a lot by Silicon Valley futurists. So often, in fact, that it’s no longer clear what the term actually means.

Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid: What We Talk About When We Talk About Artificial Intelligence

There’s no doubt that technology is now advancing faster than at any time in human history. Today, Americans have become so accustomed to high-speed Internet that 40% of people will bounce off a website that takes more than three seconds to load, even though the Internet has only been widely available for two decades.

Yet despite these advances, many people in Silicon Valley believe the time is ripe for an even greater leap forward. It’s called “the singularity,” an idea grounded more in science-fiction than actual science. In short, it’s the belief that we are living through a unique era in human history. As technology continues to evolve, we will eventually create an artificially intelligent computer, which will lead to an unprecedented explosion in technological evolution that will change life as we know it.

artificial intelligence concept

Last year, The Atlantic writer Erik Larson wrote an article busting some of the top myths about artificial intelligence, chiding Silicon Valley icons like Elon Musk for their less than scientific approach to AI.

“Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, has openly speculated that humans could be reduced to ‘pets’ by the coming superintelligent machines. Musk has donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute, in a self-described bid to help stave off the development of ‘killer robots.'”

In science fiction, artificial intelligence is often hostile (think “Terminator”), but in the real world, it’s slightly less menacing. Larson urged readers to make a distinction between “smart” technology and genuine AI, which remains a distant fantasy in 2016, no matter what the innovators of Silicon Valley say.

For instance, companies like Google and Apple already describe their products as a form of artificial intelligence, which may come as a surprise to anyone that’s used Siri for more than five minutes.

The truth is, human beings barely understand how the human brain works, and many AI skeptics believe we’re far, far away from replicating genuine sentience in a computer. But that hasn’t stopped Google from describing their new digital assistant as an AI-powered product.

Google also says that it’s uniquely qualified to create artificial intelligence as the leading organizer of human knowledge at the moment (and ever). Every month, Google receives about 100 billion search queries; that’s trillions a year and three billion a day. And as much progress as the company has made towards machine learning, the field of artificial intelligence is far less advanced than it’s often portrayed in the media.

Or at least that’s what Google’s Artificial Intelligence Chief John Giannandrea says about the current state of machine learning.

“I think computers are remarkably dumb,” Giannandrea said last year. “A computer is like a 4-year-old child.”

Remember that the next time a Silicon Valley CEO throws around the phrase artificial intelligence, because chances are they’re just trying to sell you something.

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