Speak & Spell machine

Speak & Spell

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IN FROM three to eight years, we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being. I mean a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight. At that point the machine will begin to educate itself with fantastic speed. In a few months it will be at genius level, and a few months after that, its powers will be incalculable.

Such rumours of superhuman artificial intelligence have been doing the rounds lately, but this prediction doesn’t come from AI oracles du jour Nick Bostrom or Elon Musk (New Scientist, 25 June, p 18). It was made in 1970 by the man widely considered to be the “father of artificial intelligence” – Marvin Minsky.

But eight years later, the cutting-edge was still only the Speak & Spell (pictured above), an educational toy that used rudimentary computer logic. When the chasm between Minsky’s promise and reality sank in, the disappointment destroyed AI research for decades – a situation so dire it has since been dubbed the “AI winter”.

Today there are whispers that something similar might be on its way, fuelled by the excitement surrounding deep learning, the technique that enabled an AI to beat the world champion at the board game Go earlier this year. “I can feel the cold breeze on the back of my neck,” says Roger Schank, professor emeritus at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. But are these the grumblings of veterans who missed out on the true AI revolution? Or harbingers of something real?

The original AI …

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