Google’s decision to reorganize itself around A.I. was the first major manifestation of what has become an industrywide machine-learning delirium. Over the past four years, six companies in particular — Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and the Chinese firm Baidu — have touched off an arms race for A.I. talent, particularly within universities. Corporate promises of resources and freedom have thinned out top academic departments. It has become widely known in Silicon Valley that Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, personally oversees, with phone calls and video-chat blandishments, his company’s overtures to the most desirable graduate students. Starting salaries of seven figures are not unheard-of. Attendance at the field’s most important academic conference has nearly quadrupled. What is at stake is not just one more piecemeal innovation but control over what very well could represent an entirely new computational platform: pervasive, ambient artificial intelligence.
The phrase “artificial intelligence” is invoked as if its meaning were self-evident, but it has always been a source of confusion and controversy. Imagine if you went back to the 1970s, stopped someone on the street, pulled out a smartphone and showed her Google Maps. Once you managed to convince her you weren’t some oddly dressed wizard, and that what you withdrew from your pocket wasn’t a black-arts amulet but merely a tiny computer more powerful than the one that guided Apollo missions, Google Maps would almost certainly seem to her a persuasive example of “artificial intelligence.” In a very real sense, it is. It can do things any map-literate human can manage, like get you from your hotel to the airport — though it can do so much more quickly and reliably. It can also do things that humans simply and obviously cannot: It can evaluate the traffic, plan the best route and reorient itself when you take the wrong exit.