Google has big plans in the artificial-intelligence arena. It recently acquired DeepMind, self-billed “cutting edge artificial intelligence company” for $400 million; that’s in addition to snatching up all sorts of startups and research scientists devoted to everything from robotics to machine learning. Thanks to the massive datasets generated by the world’s largest online search engine (and the infrastructure allowing that engine to run), those scientists could have enough information and computing power at their disposal to create networked devices capable of human-like thought. Kurzweil, having studied artificial intelligence for decades, is at the forefront of this in-house effort.
Kurzweil believes that language is the best entryway for expanding computers’ ability to learn, understand, and eventually “think.” As he told the newspaper:
“My project is ultimately to base search on really understanding what the language means. When you write an article you’re not creating an interesting collection of words. You have something to say and Google is devoted to intelligently [organizing] and processing the world’s information. The message in your article is information, and the computers are not picking up on that. So we would like to actually have the computers read. We want them to read everything on the web and every page of every book, then be able to engage an intelligent dialogue with the user to be able to answer their questions.”
Google devotes considerable resources to improving its products’ natural-language abilities. Speak to the Google Now app on your smartphone, and the software does its best to respond with a definitive answer (whether that “answer” is something from the Web, your personal calendar, or a recent email in your Gmail account). Behind the scenes, of course, Google’s growing army of machine-learning specialists and AI researchers are working on much more complex systems, which could end up rivaling current platforms such as IBM’s Watson.
In fact, Kurzweil isn’t above using his Guardian interview to throw a little jab in Watson’s direction:
“IBM’s Watson is a pretty weak reader on each page, but it read the 200m pages of Wikipedia. And basically what I’m doing at Google is to try to go beyond what Watson could do. To do it at Google scale. Which is to say to have the computer read tens of billions of pages. Watson doesn’t understand the implications of what it’s reading. It’s doing a sort of pattern matching. It doesn’t understand that if John sold his red Volvo to Mary that involves a transaction or possession and ownership being transferred. It doesn’t understand that kind of information and so we are going to actually encode that, really try to teach it to understand the meaning of what these documents are saying.”
That sounds very practical, but at a certain point Kurzweil’s predictions veer into what most people would consider science fiction. He believes, for example, that a significant portion of people alive today could end up living forever, thanks to the ministrations of ultra-intelligent computers and beyond-cutting-edge medical technology. By 2029, he thinks, computers’ cognitive abilities will be on par with that of their human creators; by 2045, the machines will have far surpassed us. And those ultra-intelligent systems really won’t find those Terminator jokes funny.