Whatever happened to artificial intelligence?

The grand promise of intelligent machines underestimated the complexity of reproducing human cognition

University of New Mexico's Luger says "language processing is a big area. We're working with a small company to answer questions in the context of a knowledge base that knows the area of inquiry." Asking machine language processing to understand all words and speech idioms still leads to failure, but building in a knowledge base of a topic area works.

"Go to the Next I.T. Web site and check Ask Jenn from Alaska Airlines and Ask SGT STAR from the US Army, two natural-language bots we put together," Luger says. "We want to give the same answers to the same questions, which you don't always get with people.''

Research yields results

Eric Horvitz, manager of the Adaptive Systems group at Microsoft, says "about a quarter of all Microsoft research is focused on AI efforts." Microsoft Research includes close to 1,000 Ph.D level researchers spread across eight campuses around the world, and a completely open research and publication environment. "It's a think tank, but not a captive one. We have an open publication model."

"Microsoft Research's No. 1 goal is to push the state of the art forward without regard to Microsoft," Horvitz says. "Researchers do their best work, publish in journals, and then work with product teams to build the best software or service." One project that started in Microsoft Research became the new SYNC voice recognition technology used by audio systems in Ford vehicles.

Horvitz and fellow researchers also have the ability to turn thousands of Microsoft employees into guinea pigs. The kernel of the Vista operating system includes machine learning to predict, by user, the next application that will be opened, based on past use and the time of the day and week. "We looked at over 200 million application launches within the company," Horvitz says. "Vista fetches the two or three most likely applications into memory, and the probability accuracy is around 85 to 90 per cent."

Desktop application traffic is one thing, but city traffic prediction is another. ClearFlow, a project born of the frustration of sitting in Seattle traffic, examined thousands of routes for people based on the inference of local street traffic flow reacting to highway accidents. Realizing side streets become clogged when drivers seek to escape highway congestion, Microsoft's maps.live.com site includes side street congestion history in rerouting suggestions. Microsoft rolled out this free service for 72 cities in early April.

The excessive hype over artificial intelligence promises in the 1950s, 1960, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s have made the public weary of unfulfilled promises. While almost every consumer electronic device includes some artificial intelligence tools inside, the box labels never include artificial intelligence in the parts list.

Artificial intelligence is not only still around, but in more places than ever. Rather than calling the tools artificial intelligence, manufacturers just call technologies developed by artificial intelligence research "tools." Just remember that the next time you perform a Web search, write an address on an envelope the Post Office sorts automatically, or ask Microsoft Word for a grammar check, artificial intelligence does the heavy lifting.

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