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Reality check: The state of AI, bots, and smart assistants

Galen Gruman | June 12, 2017
We’ve made a lot of progress in artificial intelligence over the last half century, but we’re nowhere near what the tech enthusiasts would have you believe

Thanks to the ongoing advances in data storage and computational capacity, boosted by cloud computing, more patterns can be stored, identified, and acted on then ever before. Much of what people do is based on pattern matching—to solve an issue, you first try to figure out what it is like that you already know, then try the solutions you already know. The faster the pattern matching to likeliest actions or outcomes, the more intelligent the system seems.

But we’re still in early days. There are some cases, such as navigation, where systems have become very good, to the point where (some) people will now drive onto an airport tarmac, into a lake, or onto a snowed-in country road because their GPS told them to, contrary to all the signals the people themselves have to the contrary.

But mostly, these systems are dumb. That’s why when you go to Amazon and look at products, many websites you visit feature those products in their ads. That’s especially silly if you bought the product or decided not to—but all these systems know is you looked at X product, so they’ll keep showing you more of the same. That’s anything but intelligent. And it’s not only Amazon product ads; Apple’s Genius music-matching feature and Google’s Now recommendations are similarly clueless about the context, so they lead you into a sea of sameness very quickly.

They can actually work against you, as Apple’s autocorrection now does. It epitomizes a failure of the crowdsourcing, where people’s bad grammar, lack of clarity on how to form plurals or use apostrophes, inconsistent capitalization, and typos are imposed on everyone else. (I’ve found that turning it off can result in fewer errors, even for horrible typists like myself.)

Missing is the nuance of more context, such as knowing what you bought or rejected, so you don’t get advertisements for more of the same but another item you may be more interested in. Ditto with music—if your playlists is varied, so should be the recommendations. And ditto with, say, recommendation of where to eat that Google Now makes—I like Indian food, but I don’t want it every time I go out. What else do I like and have not had lately? And what about the patterns and preferences of the people I’m dining with?

Autocorrect is another example of where context is needed. First, someone should tell Apple the difference between “its” and “it’s,” as well as explain that there are legitimate, correct variations in English that people should be allowed to specify. For example, prefixes can be made part of a word (like “preconfigured”) or hyphenated (like “pre-configured”), and users should be allowed to specify that preference. (Putting a space after them is always wrong, such as “pre configured,” yet that’s what Apple autocorrect imposes unless you hyphenate.)


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