A long time ago, in a far-away land (Scotland) I went to Edinburgh University.    I chose to go to Edinburgh because they were one of only a few Universities that specialised in Artificial Intelligence (AI).

AI captured my imagination from a young age.   The concept that a computer might one day be able to think more like a human fascinated me.   Well that was many years ago and science and technology have moved on a long way.

One of our first challenges on the course was to write a program that could play tick-tac-toe (or noughts and crosses) against a human.   However, it turns out there’s a sequence of steps that you can take to guarantee a win or draw.    Not really intelligent though, as the computer is just following a sequence of instructions (essentially that’s all a computer does).   Real intelligence is watching a game and learning the rules, pitfalls and winning techniques yourself.

In 2015 AI reached a landmark goal by playing, and beating, humans at the ancient Chinese game of “Go”.   Go is a game based on years of experience – using intuition to beat your opponent.  It’s been considered the ultimate game to test computers given the fact that the rules to win it aren’t algorithmic.   Even chess – long thought to be a test of the human mind can be easily beaten by predicting hundreds of thousands of possible outcomes, something a human can’t do.    It was Google who developed a computer program – called AlphaGo that was the first to repeatedly and predictably beat the best “Go Masters” at the game.   Using a technology called “Neural Networks”, they developed a system that would play against itself and “learn” how to win, instead of telling the computer the steps necessary to win the game (impossible).  Now we’re really getting into the realms of Artificial Intelligence.

The term “neural network” comes from the study of how the brain works.   And here’s the essence, as I see it, of Artificial Intelligence – “pattern matching”.   Everything you do in life, everything you learn, is all based on patterns.  I know it sounds simple but take a moment to think about it.   From a young age, you learn to walk.  You find that if you shift your weight in certain ways, you’re stable.  You found a pattern.   Speech – when you learn to talk, you recognise words, and learn what they mean – another pattern.   It’s how the brain works, by building neural networks of matching patterns.   Using this technique, computers really are starting to become “intelligent”.   The term “Machine Learning” has been used recently to describe applications where the computer isn’t so much programmed, as “taught”.

The end results are often surprising, where the programmers can’t always explain how the computer is solving the problem!  And we’re starting to see the results of this machine learning in everyday life.   Try searching for “dog” on google.   If you click on the images results, you’ll see thousands of pictures of dogs.   It’s machine learning that has analysed billions of images across the web and is able to pick out dogs reliably.  In fact, the algorithm is so “intelligent” now, that it can differentiate between breeds.

The same goes for language recognition.   Advancements in AI now means that you can ask a computer a question using “natural language” and it’s able to not only understand the words, but also the meaning of the sentence.    This might seem straightforward now that we have cell phones and smart speakers that can do this, but the processing that goes on behind the scenes is immense.

So where is AI heading and what’s it going to be like in a few years?  We don’t really know, but we do know that development is accelerating rapidly.   Some people are worried that we need to start developing regulation to control where and how AI can be used.    The late Professor Steven Hawking was quoted as saying AI could be the “worst event in the history of our civilization”.   During a speech in Lisbon, Portugal he said;

“Success in creating effective AI, could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know. So, we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it,”

“Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.”

Personally, I’m looking forward to the future of AI.  I see computers becoming easier to use and more integrated with our everyday lives, to the point where you don’t even realise you’re using a computer any more.

The future isn’t far away, and I’ll be keeping an eye on AI!