By Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
The arrival of artificial intelligence has come not with a bang but with a whir - the faint whirring of computers.
They're fielding our calls, sifting our records, catching our criminals, even teaching our children. These machines may not be smart in the way scientists define the word. But as business tugs artificial intelligence (AI) out of the laboratory and into the real world, it's changing the way whole industries operate.
Scary stuff? Perhaps, although not in the way many people fear. Scientists say they're years away from building something anywhere near as smart as a five-year-old, much less something that could take over the world. But stealthily, with the tapping of keys and the clicking of a mouse, smart machines are insinuating themselves into our lives. They'll deliver great benefits - if people, not companies, decide where and how they'll be used. Anyone wanting to know how much Federal Express charges for a package can dial 800-GOFEDEX and punch 5. A computer answers. And if you speak reasonably clearly, it will tell you the rate for a priority overnight letter between any two zip codes in the country. Getting a computer to recognize words isn't particularly new. What's smart is that the machine understands what certain words mean and carries on a limited dialogue. Online investors at E*TRADE, for example, can say phrases such as "Buy 100 shares at the market price" or "What's the closing price of the Magellan fund?" and have the computer respond. Does that make the computer intelligent? Not according to most scientists. "There's a little more to intelligence than doing one thing well," says Murray Campbell, one of the IBM researchers who created the chess-playing computer that beat world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. But businesses are snapping up the technology because they aim to augment the intelligence of their workers, not replace it. "We're bringing artificial intelligence to bear on many, many domains," Mr. Campbell says. Like grocery shopping. When customers log onto Streamline, a Westwood, Mass., shopping service on the Internet, special offers pop up on screen. They're not random. A desktop computer generates them based on its past experience with the customer and a series of rules dreamed up by marketers. When a vegetarian orders pork The rules can be quite complex: every third Monday, offer a 10 percent discount to every customer who has at least one child and orders milk once a month. But if a health-conscious vegetarian suddenly orders a pork roast, the system is capable of abandoning its past rules, guessing there's a party in the making, and offering potato chips with fat-free dip, says Gad Barnea, chief technology officer of Manna Network Technologies in Newton, Mass. AI is also storming the ivory tower. Last month, a machine called the "e-rater" began grading the two essay questions on the Graduate Management Admission Test, the standard exam for business-school applicants. A human being also grades the essays. If man and machine disagree by more than a point on a scale of 0 to 6, the test goes to another human evaluator. The e-rater grades primarily writing style. Tom Landauer sells a machine-based service that analyzes essays for content. To program it, the University of Colorado-Boulder professor has it "read" the materials the students write, then has it teach itself what the words mean. "The way you learn word meanings is by being exposed to a lot of language," he says. His system works the same way. AI is even showing up in toys. LSI, the company that makes the popular plastic Lego blocks, now sells a kit that lets children design working robots. Programmed with sensors and a computer, they can attack intruders, flee from danger, or move around obstacles. But many artificial-intelligence companies are tackling more mundane, although lucrative, areas such as insurance fraud. Losses run into the billions of dollars. …