We stand on the edge of a crucial moment in the history of our species – a time when a creation of our own inventiveness has the potential to change everything. For some, it will be humanity’s salvation, while for others, it could be our downfall. We are entering the age of artificial intelligence (AI).
While AI is still some way from the sentient machines portrayed in science fiction, the creation of algorithms that can learn, understand language and mimic some aspects of the human mind have led to huge advances. Today AI is being used in hundreds of different industries.
The machines we use on a daily basis are getting smarter, meaning that AI is no longer a futuristic technology but is increasingly integrated into every realm of our lives. From suggesting what books we might like to buy online to powering the virtual assistants that inhabit our phones and smart speakers, some of the applications are more visible than others. In truth, AI is touching our lives far more than many of us realise.
- Banks are using it to detect fraud and predict changes in the stock markets
- Insurance companies are employing AI to help them produce policy quotes and assess claims
- It’s helping police forces to identify suspects from grainy CCTV images
- In courtrooms it’s offering advice to judges about whether to grant bail conditions to criminal suspects
- Machines with the capability to identify images are helping doctors spot disease.
- Algorithms that use machine learning – one of the leading branches of AI – are helping self-driving cars to navigate our complex roads
- They are helping linguists to decifer lost languages
- And it is helping firms make decisions about who to hire and fire
- Even on flights, AI is being used by air traffic controllers to help to keep us safe both in the air and on the ground.
Yet there are also deep ethical questions about how and when AI should be used. And whether the hype surrounding this technology outstrips what is really achievable.
Over the next four months, BBC Future is going to explore the technologies and trends at the cutting-edge of AI, sorting the hype from where it has real-world promise. We will probe the profound implications of letting these silicon brains into our lives and how it will shape our relationships, our work and our societies.
One of the early pioneers of computer science Alan Perlis once quipped that “a year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God,” out of frustration at the problems of producing computer networks that could mimic the human brain. Is the prospect of creating machines that could possibly hope to compete with our brains still out of reach? Or are they now able to do the things humans can only dream of?
What is AI really capable of? How can it help us solve our problems? And how should we feel about this future?
Join us on our journey through the research, applications and future of AI.
Join 900,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.