Artificial Intelligentsia

From Siri to Watson to HAL, stories on computers that can think, talk and rule the world.
7 stories

Like Peggy Sue, Rosanna, and (sweet) Caroline, Apple’s Siri has already inspired a love song—musician Jonathan Mann composed the viral tune “Duet with Siri” for the wise and wise-cracking iPhone 4S assistant

Of course, Siri isn’t the first artificial intelligence to inspire complicated feelings. Bruce Feiler once confessed that he had fallen for his car’s GPS voice. In “Turn Left, My Love,” Feiler recounted how the all-knowing “Australian Karen” was actually helping his marriage: “Having someone around whose sole role is to serve me gives me what I want as a man (efficiency and attention) while not threatening what my wife wants as a woman (kindness and equality),” Feiler wrote. “With my GPS in the car, both my wife and I are happy. Three’s a charm.” (And to understand why electronic voices are often female, Brandon Griggs explored the psychology behind the gender of computers.)

Another AI star that captivated the public is Watson, the IBM supercomputer that defeated two human champions on Jeopardy! last year. But as Clive Thompson wrote about Watson in The New York Times Magazine, “advances like Watson are bound to provoke nervous concerns too. High-tech critics have begun to wonder about the wisdom of relying on artificial-intelligence systems in the face of complex reality. Many Wall Street firms, for example, now rely on “millisecond trading” computers, which detect deviations in prices and order trades far faster than humans ever could; but these are now regarded as a possible culprit in the seemingly irrational hourlong stock-market plunge of the spring.”

Such fears no doubt spring from the HAL 9000, the menacing supercomputer with the ominous red eye in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1997, the year of HAL’s “birth” in the Clarke novel, Simson Garfinkel wrote about artificial intelligence in Wired and wondered when we might see an actual computer that thinks. Eleven years later, John Seabrook, writing in The New Yorker, asked the same question. (Interestingly, Seabrook’s story on AI references DARPA, the Pentagon’s high-tech research department, whose development of voice-controlled software eventually gave birth to Siri.)

Finally, as Abou Farman reported in Maisonneuve last year, the fears about a HAL-like supercomputer out-thinking humans isn't always as scary as we imagine it is. “If it really came down to it,” AI researcher Ben Goertzel told Farman, “I wouldn’t hesitate to annihilate myself in favour of some amazing superbeing.”

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Turn Right, My Love

Falling in love with the GPS voice.

From the Web

Happy Birthday, Hal

The HAL 9000 computer—an artificial intelligence that could think, talk, see, feel, and occasionally go berserk—was supposed to be operational in January 1997. Has anyone seen HAL?

Jan 1997

Hello, Hal

Will we ever get a computer we can really talk to?

Jun 2008
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What Is I.B.M.’s Watson?

The category is artificial intelligence. This question-answering computer system is ready to challenge some flesh-and-blood “Jeopardy!” champions.

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Say Hello to Stanley

Stanford’s souped-up Volkswagen blasted through the Mojave Desert, blew away the competition, and won Darpa’s $2 million Grand Challenge. Buckle up, human—the driverless car of the future is gaining on you.

Jan 2006
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The Intelligent Universe

The next stage in evolution—a machine consciousness able to manipulate time and space—is just around the corner. The catch: humans will no longer be in charge.
Aug 2010
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Mind vs. Machine

In the race to build computers that can think like humans, the proving ground is the Turing Test—an annual battle between the world’s most advanced artificial-intelligence programs and ordinary people. The objective? To find out whether a computer can act “more human” than a person. In his own quest to beat the machines, the author discovers that the march of technology isn’t just changing how we live, it’s raising new questions about what it means to be human.
Mar 2011