Up until recently, if asked what I was working on and I answered, “artificial intelligence,” I could pretty well predict the direction of the conversation from there: Is it like the replicants in Blade Runner (or Skynet in Terminator)? Or chess- or Go-playing AI like IBM or DeepMind make? Or, occasionally, a person familiar with video games might wonder if I’m working on pathfinding algorithms or flocking behaviors for enemy characters. But now there’s a different trend; now, if I say I’m working on AI, it’s as if I’m a chef who’s declared his menu is “food.”
AI has become huge in the last few years, not so much in a cyberpunk kind of way but instead as an integral part of, well, stuff. Lots of stuff. Phones have AI. Houses do. Cars do. Stuffed animals do. Nearly every industry does, from manufacturing to finance to marketing. Basically, anything that can use data to determine its course of action is said to have, at least on a rudimentary level, AI.
In some ways this is because AI has really made leaps and bounds in the last ten years or so, going from a sort of dead end (where’re the human-like robots we were promised in the 1960s?) to interpreting language, determining the best way to build an object (or at least helping), helping interpret data for various industries to make them more efficient and effective, and, of course, beating human players at Go. But it seems AI has also benefited from an incredible marketing makeover—the movers and shakers in the field are often savvy in all the most modern methods of advertising, using social networks to create buzz, streaming video to pique interest, and even using “old-fashioned” but still effective routes like TV and print ads and getting themselves mentioned on the news. This image makeover/explosion has made AI the next “cloud,” and the term has become almost more buzzword than substance in some cases. Marketers for products that have very little to do with any kind of advanced AI (and certainly nothing to do with Roy Batty) are touting toasters, thermostats, and even clothing (well, maybe not yet, but it’s coming) as having the latest cool “AI” to help them do their jobs. In some cases they’re almost right; a thermostat could be said to have a very limited form of, errr, intelligence when it comes to knowing when to turn on the heat. Maybe. But more and more, I’m seeing “AI” bantered about just to give things cache. And it’s becoming very annoying.
However, one interesting (good? bad?) thing that will likely come of all this is that the public’s perception of AI will change from one of science fiction/horror (it’ll eat us all!) to one of acceptance of AI in our daily lives (even though, ironically, at present it’s more bluster than substance). Maybe this is why folks like Elon Musk are shouting the most outrageous things they can think of to warn us that the sky (Skynet?) is falling, just to get our attention. But in some ways I see the overall blunting of histrionic reactions as a good thing. It’s not that I want us to just accept our new robot overlords as the latest “in” thing, but I would like to be able to have a conversation about AI that isn’t overlaid with emotion and knee-jerk reaction.
I’m not sure, though, that this is where we’re going. It isn’t that I’m going to be able to have a different, better conversation about AI; it’s very possible that in the future, when I say I’m working on AI, the reaction will be one of boredom, of “Who cares?” And that’s maybe the worst reaction of all.