In just the last few years, “machine learning” has come to seem like the new path forward. Algorithms, freed from human programmers, are training themselves on massive data sets and producing results that have shocked even the optimists in the field. Earlier this year, two AIs—one created by the Chinese company Alibaba and the other by Microsoft—beat a team of two-legged competitors in a Stanford reading-comprehension test. The algorithms “read” a series of Wikipedia entries on things like the rise of Genghis Khan and the Apollo space program and then answered a series of questions about them more accurately than people did. One Alibaba scientist declared the victory a “milestone.”
These so-called “narrow” AIs are everywhere, embedded in your GPS systems and Amazon recommendations. But the ultimate goal is artificial general intelligence, a self-teaching system that can outperform humans across a wide range of disciplines. Some scientists believe it’s 30 years away; others talk about centuries. This AI “takeoff,” also known as the singularity, will likely see AI pull even with human intelligence and then blow past it in a matter of days. Or hours.
Once it arrives, general AI will begin taking jobs away from people, millions of jobs—as drivers, radiologists, insurance adjusters. In one possible scenario, this will lead governments to pay unemployed citizens a universal basic income, freeing them to pursue their dreams unburdened by the need to earn a living. In another, it will create staggering wealth inequalities, chaos and failed states across the globe. But the revolution will go much further. AI robots will care for the elderly—scientists at Brown University are working with Hasbro to develop a “robo-cat” that can remind its owners to take their meds and can track down their eyeglasses. AI “scientists” will solve the puzzle of dark matter; AI-enabled spacecraft will reach the asteroid belts, while on Earth the technology will tame climate change, perhaps by sending massive swarms of drones to reflect sunlight away from the oceans. Last year, Microsoft committed $50 million to its “AI for Earth” program to fight climate change.