Artificial Intelligence-Coming of Age?

By Crerar, Alison | Manager, May/June 2001 | Go to article overview

Artificial Intelligence-Coming of Age?


Crerar, Alison, Manager


The term Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is apt to conjure up sci-fi images rather than thoughts of business applications Man has always had a fascination with the idea of creating artificial life, and in particular with endowing a machine with consciousness and cognition. Blockbuster films such as 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Terminator and The Matrix reinforced the idea that intelligent machines mean inevitable catastrophe for their human inventors. The intelligent robot of the entertainment world was forecast to be reality by the year 2000. By now domestic robots were expected to be as ubiquitous as mobile phones it hasn't happened. So has Al failed to deliver, or is there more to intelligent machines than that?

The answer is that Al, which is a subfield of Computer Science, is a richer field of study, and more down to earth, than sci-fi suggests. It's not new either. The name was coined at a meeting in Darmstadt in 1956, but the idea of creating machines that think recurs throughout the history of science, back to ancient civilisations. What was different in 1956 was that the digital computer had been born, and this brought a real prospect of doing two things: firstly, validating models of human cognitive processes by expressing them as computer programs and watching them run, and secondly, endowing these general purpose information processing machines themselves with similar mental capacities.

Progress may not have been as spectacular as early optimists predicted, but Al has delivered a great deal of practical value over the subsequent 45 years. It is now a large discipline spanning specialisms in areas as diverse as machine learning, natural language processing, vision, robotics, reasoning, expert systems and intelligent agents. One ofthe problems for Al has been that people are loathe to grant a machine 'intelligence', so when a program surpasses some prevailing criterion, the goal posts are changed. In the early days it was proposed that if a machine could perform a task which, if done by a person would require intelligence, then the machine could be said to be intelligent. Well, computers play chess, recognise speech, process payrolls, sort mail, schedule university timetables, manage complex networks, but are they intelligent? Of course not! So you see the problem. The results of AI research can be found behind a myriad of everyday applications we take for granted, but Al itself isn't a contemporary buzz phrase, at least not in business.

A world of information...

Things are set to change. Al, perhaps `re-branded', must become more visible in forward-looking business and commerce. The reason is that embedding intelligence in business applications is the only way to break away from the old mould of machines as the work horses of late 20th century commerce, to machines as facilitators of a new order. The new order will be lighter, more responsive, mobile, personalised and global. Already ours is dubbed the 'information society'. So many of us are doing what Charles Leadbeater wrote about in his book Living on Thin Air: making a living out of generating, manipulating and delivering information.

In this post-industrial age, the information processing machine must be paramount. The smarter our automated systems are when it comes to handling customers (Customer Relationship Management Systems); externalising and structuring corporate knowledge (Knowledge Management); making business decisions (intelligent Decision Support Systems); finding what we need and acquiring it at a good price (intelligent agents);streamlining corporate communications (unified messaging systems); supporting universal access to documents (document management systems) and realising the assets buried in distributed databases (data mining), the more competitive they will be.

Technology exists already to do all the above, but few companies are using it well enough to stand out from the crowd. While pro-civil rights campaigners (rightly) warn of the dangers of personal data being used for malign purposes, large businesses continue to commit the cardinal sin of demonstrating to their customers that they can't even integrate data within their own group, let alone make wider links. …

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