New Delhi, Dec 28: The year 2017 saw artificial intelligence bringing the stuff of science fiction closer to reality by not only gaining foothold in all spheres of life, but also getting the better of humans in many fields. From acquiring citizenship to outsmarting humans at complex games, from composing music to writing novels, from assisting doctors to helping fight judicial cases, artificial intelligence (AI) made its presence felt throughout the year.
Artificial intelligence is a term used to describe systems or machines that mimic the cognitive functions of human minds, such as learning and problem solving. Although by no means a new concept, the technology made headlines throughout the year. Perhaps, among the most talked about AI machines this year was Sophia, a humanoid robot designed by a company in Hong Kong, that was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia - a country where women were not allowed to drive until recently. The move drew widespread criticism from women, who were distraught to see an AI machine being granted more rights than them.
An AI system called Libratus beat four human players in a Texas Hold 'em Poker marathon match lasting 20 days, winning more than USD 1.5 millions worth of chips. Meanwhile, Google's AI system 'DeepMind AlphaGo' defeated the world's top player of the ancient Chinese board game of Go - considered to be more challenging for computers than chess. Getting AI machines to beat humans in complex games is just a part of developing systems that can have applications in medicine, as well as industries that require analysing large amount of data to make decisions.
Already, machine learning systems and robots are helping doctors diagnose diseases and predict lifespans. Scientists at Stanford University developed an AI system that can detect life-threatening irregular heartbeats by quickly sifting through hours of heart rhythm data. The algorithm reportedly performs better than trained cardiologists. A team from Florida State University in the US developed an AI tool that can predict whether someone will attempt suicide as far off as two years into the future with up to 80 per cent accuracy.
The achievements of AI are not limited to the field of medicine. An Indian start-up developed a website called LegitQuest with an AI powered search tool that allows users to browse through millions of legal case records and find the most relevant results in seconds. The tool could help lawyers cut down on the time they take to conduct research before appearing for a case.
Meanwhile, Stanford scientists have developed a system that can predict court decisions better than legal scholars, even with less information. Another AI system, called VALCRI (Visual Analytics for Sense-Making in Criminal Intelligence), developed by researchers from Middlesex University London can help solve crimes by taking over the laborious task of analysing clues and finding links that human investigators might have missed. Such systems could give human detectives like Sherlock Holmes a run for money, performing the tedious part a crime analyst's job in seconds. Apart from teaching machines to process data, researchers are also inculcating AI systems with creative capabilities.
An AI robot 'Shimon' developed at Georgia Institute of Technology in the US is trained to compose music inspired by the works of musicians - from Beethoven to Lady Gaga. A UK-based company developed an AI system that can turn people's sketches into paintings reminiscent of the works by great Renaissance artists such as Vincent van Gogh. Not only has the developing capabilities of AIs raised fears of a large section of human workforce losing jobs, many critics have pointed out the potential dangers of building machines that can "think like humans".
A survey by researchers from Oxford University in the UK and Yale University in the US showed that most researchers believe AI systems could outperform humans in all tasks within the next 45 years, and that all human jobs will be automated in the next 120 years. Even renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking warned that the creation of powerful artificial intelligence may turn out to be "the worst thing ever to happen to humanity" despite its potential benefits.
However, in a study published in the journal Science this month, researchers found that it is unlikely that AI systems will replace people in all jobs. Instead machine learning computer systems, which get better with experience, will transform the economy and the nature of a lot of human jobs. For now, there is little need to panic. Despite many feats, AI is still far from world domination. An AI robot that took a college entrance exam in China managed to barely scrape a passing grade. An AI system in the US, trained to write the next Game of Thrones novel, spun out five chapters of comical literary nonsense.
Like every other technological innovation in the past, AI too has its set of pros and cons. While its potential applications and benefits are huge, in wrong hands, the technology could indeed spell dire consequences for humans. One thing is for certain: AI systems are here to stay, and with time they will only get smarter.