“Have you heard the rumor about butter? … Never mind — I shouldn’t spread it.”
Go ahead and roll your eyes. We’ll wait.
This groaner is just one of the many, many terrible jokes that Amazon’s “personal assistant” software, Alexa, will tell you — if you ask. But Alexa can do a lot more than make bad puns. Many people start their mornings by asking Alexa for the weather forecast or the latest news. A device that houses the software can also play music from your favorite playlists, keep a shopping list, order takeout food, answer trivia questions, send voice messages and even run “smart” home controls like thermostats.
Alexa is a form of artificial intelligence, or AI for short. But this digital personal assistant is just one of many AI systems that have have become a part of modern life. Another well-known one is AlphaGo. It’s an AI system designed by Google that recently beat a human champion, Lee Sedol, at the strategy board game Go. Other examples of AI abound. A spam-filtering assistant can detect which messages are pure junk. Then there are all of those self-driving vehicles that have started taking to the road.
Training AI systems to respond to problems with human-like intelligence — and learn from their mistakes — can take months, or even years.
Consider Alexa and similar software, such as Apple’s Siri. To do the tasks its human overlords ask, these systems must make sense of and then respond to sentences such as, “Alexa, play my Ed Sheeran playlist” or “Siri, what is the capital of India?” Computers can’t understand language as it is spoken by people. So AI researchers must find a way to help humans communicate with computers. The technology used to get computers to “understand” human speech or text is known as natural language processing. By natural language, computer scientists refer to the way people naturally talk or write.
To teach an AI system a task like understanding a sentence in English or responding to a person’s last move in a board game, scientists need to feed it lots of examples. To train AlphaGo, Google had to show it 30 million Go moves that people had made while playing the game. Then AlphaGo used what it learned by analyzing those plays (such as what moves won and which lost) as it played against different versions of itself.
During this practice, the program became so skilled and clever that it came up with novel moves — ones never seen in games between people.
Computers, software and devices that are powered by AI can do much more, however, than just play board games and music. They can perform serious tasks, such as helping kids learn math or helping doctors decide how to treat cancer.