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A Brief History of AI: And How It Has Already Affected You


Both at home and in the workplace, artificial intelligence (AI) has been hyped as a transformative force, improving the ease and efficiency of performing everyday tasks. “The future is now,” the tech blogs all tell us.

But given that our present era hardly looks like the one sci-fi movies and cartoons such as the Jetsons would have had us expect - with self-driving (much less flying) cars and robot housekeepers still far from commonplace - you might be wondering just how true that statement is. The answer lies in an exploration of what artificial intelligence is, how it’s advanced over the years, and its current capabilities.

What is AI?

It’s no coincidence that the Jetsons hit the airwaves in 1962, on the heels of a decade where scientists and philosophers became obsessed about the potential of machines to take over tasks historically performed by humans. Though the concept didn’t yet have a name, in 1950, the computer programmer Alan Turing wrote the algorithm for the world’s first chess-playing computer. Six years later, in 1956, a mathematician at Dartmouth University hosted the first academic conference about the science of intelligent machines, and the term “artificial intelligence” was born.

The actual definition of AI hasn’t changed since John McCarthy coined it to refer to "the science and engineering of making intelligent machines." But it’s only taken on major buzzword status in recent years. And while there are numerous forms of AI, from voice-activated smart assistants such as Siri and Alexa to robotic process automation, as a whole AI refers to the use of computers to perform tasks and actions that once required human intervention.

The Evolution of AI

When Turing wrote his chess-playing algorithm, it was just that: an algorithm. But in the nearly seven decades since, AI has evolved from the promise of an idea into an actuality that is already driving efficiency everywhere from the living room to the office.

But before AI could evolve from theory to practice, computers had to first become commonplace, and that’s just what happened in the decades following McCarthy’s conference. From the 1950s to the 1980s (and beyond), computers became faster, cheaper and capable of processing ever-increasing volumes of information. At the same time, AI was still largely the domain of researchers and government agencies who sought to understand its potential, rather than focusing on actual applications that could be transferred to end users. The lack of tangible results slowed both interest and investment until the game of chess, once again, put AI back in the forefront.

In 1997, around the same time as the number of internet users hit 36 million - becoming the world’s largest user community - and laptops were starting to proliferate, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer defeated Gary Kasparov, the reigning world chess champion. This stunning event was one of the factors that reignited the drive towards making AI commonplace. That same year, Windows implemented speech recognition software, another great leap that set the stage for AI as we know it today.

From News-making to Commonplace

In the two decades that have followed, AI has transitioned from a newsmaker to an everyday reality due to a combination of public and private research and investment. And while AI today might not look like the futuristic robot invasion we were led to expect, it has impacted many work and personal tasks.

Here are a few common examples of how AI is affecting your day to day life:

1. Smartphones

One of the most obvious and common examples of AI in daily life is your smartphone. But your phone isn’t just a single example of AI - it actually contains many examples of artificial intelligence at work. These include predictive text and autocorrect functionalities, both of which use clues such as context, previous language usage, and other signals to help you write more quickly and with fewer typos. Voice-activated assistants such as Siri, which can dial a call, conduct an internet search, look up an address, send a text, or fulfill other commands, is another example of your phone’s AI enablement.

2. Online advertising

Have you ever looked at an item you were thinking about buying online only to then see ads for it on every website you look at after? Eerie, right? Not really - it’s just artificial intelligence. These smart computers known as ad servers use your online activities to determine your interests and show you relevant advertising.

3. Automation

From fraud warnings from your bank to customer service emails to automated tagging - whether that’s categorizing your contracts or identifying the people in your Facebook photos - computers are better than ever before at deciphering meaning from signals such as text and photos and then either automatically applying the correct action or suggesting to a user the appropriate next step. While the underlying processes that support this automation may vary, automation works by providing computers with a rules framework that they apply to inputted data; based on the criteria provided, a specific action or task is then performed.

From online shopping to self-driving cars to contract management, AI is prolific in daily life. But as computers, and the algorithms and models that teach them, continue to get smart, you can expect AI's footprint to continue to expand.

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