The Future Arrives in 2045


One expert predicts—or should we say, warns—that artificial intelligence will be fully operational in just 30 years.

For years, the development of full artificial intelligence has been the brass ring of computer science. So many of our machines already “think” for themselves in terms of repetitive duties based on human programming, of course. But when the day comes when computers can actually interpret our emotions, or get the punch line about the chicken and the road without our help, we’ll know the future has truly arrived.

Mark it down: The future arrives in 2045.

That’s what Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google, said earlier this year while speculating about full AI functionality. Kurzweil, the world-renowned entrepreneur and inventor who has been described as “the rightful heir to Thomas Edison” by Forbes, joined Google in 2012 to develop its machine intelligence efforts and natural language understanding. He believes that computers will become more intelligent than humans in about 30 years and calls the moment, “The Singularity.”

In Kurzweil’s world, The Singularity will be a force for good. Meanwhile, Stephen Hawking is taking a more foreboding stance. Earlier this month in an interview with the BBC, the 70-year-old physicist said, “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Oddly, that pronouncement came while he was discussing a new voice synthesizer created by Intel that uses partial AI to help him speak through predictive technology. (Sort of like the way a smartphone keyboard predicts the words you’re typing.) Hawking added, “[A machine with AI] could take off on its own, and redesign itself in an ever increasing rate.”

Whether you believe future machines will adhere to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and will hold mankind harmless, or you think we’re in for a technological dystopia, AI is here to stay. And, it’s bearing down on us at a furious pace. As 2014 draws near to the end, here’s a look at some other notable moments from the world of autonomous machines from the past 12 months.

Another Dire Prediction
Like Hawking, entrepreneur Elon Musk stoked our anxiety about AI earlier this year with a similarly dire declaration. In August, he posted an ominous tweet. We’re not usually alarmists, but any time Musk speaks, we take notice.

Taking Action Now
As a sort of counterbalance to Hawking and Musk’s predictions, researchers at three universities in England said earlier this month that they are starting a collaborative project to ensure that autonomous robots in the future will be safer, and make ethical decisions based on established legislation. “This project brings together world-leading teams…to develop formal verification techniques for tackling questions of safety, ethics, legality, and reliability across a range of autonomous systems,” says Professor Michael Fisher, a principal investigator.

Short-Term Memory
DeepMind Technologies, a London startup purchased by Google in January for $400 million, announced in October that they had created an advance neural network designed to function like human short-term memory. The network learns as it stores memories, allowing whatever device it’s resident in to operate beyond its original programming.

Meet Amelia
Two big oil companies, Bakers Hughes and Shell, are beginning a trial run of a virtual assistant—in the form of an attractive on-screen avatar named Amelia—that will answer queries about invoices from vendors via instant messenger. The idea is to replace the call center currently in use with a friendly and helpful face. According to Quartz, Amelia has the comprehension level of a six-year-old, but the ability to adjust tone and emotion according to the caller’s state. Her ability to answer questions is built upon the answers of prior ones. If she becomes stumped by a query, she calls in a human operator.

Amazon Echo
In the same vein as Siri, the Amazon Echo is a $99 stand-alone device that answers questions about the weather, or movie times, or facts and trivia. It looks a bit like a thick black tube (in fact, it is a thick black tube) that you prop up in your kitchen or living room or wherever and fire questions at without having to physically interact. A bit gimmicky, and, like Siri, really more of a speech recognition device, the Echo represents an imaginative and simple advance in applying AI to household hardware.

Meet Jibo
Just out of the crowdfunding stage, and still in prototype, JIBO is a small social robot  being developed by a group headed by Cynthia Braezeal, who is also director of MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robot Group. It’s designed to be like a friendly family bot that performs some of the tasks of a tablet but uses facial and voice recognition to interact and distinguish one person from another. Plus, it’s proactive: It comes to life when someone enters the room. Braezeal’s team hopes to have a model ready for the holidays in 2015 at a price of $500.