You wish to clear up some confusion over your credit-card statement. You phone in, ask your questions, and the problem is quickly solved by a friendly and knowledgeable person.
Or maybe you want to book a visit to a dentist. After plugging information into your computer, you get a call on your cellphone, confirming an appointment with a dentist who fits your schedule and dental plan.
Such service, and by such friendly people. Or, at least you thought they were people.
In fact, you were speaking to machines, but ones with human-like qualities — machines with the ability to learn, reason, solve problems and speak in everyday language and through voice recognition.
Such simulation of human intelligence by computer systems is known as artificial intelligence (AI) — and this is the wave of the future, said Bruce Matichuk, founder of Celcorp, an Edmonton-based company that develops business software using intelligent systems technology. It will also change the way the business world works.
AI is a complex area because it deals with the logic of people versus the efficiency of computers.
It embraces the fields of neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, logic, biology, computer science, mathematics, software engineering and philosophy.
To replicate emotions, behaviour, nuances and logic in machines is a slow process, demanding research funding and raising questions about ethics, said Matichuk, who gave a speech on AI during last week’s Convergence 2001 conference held in Calgary.
“AI is the emerging force in the computer industry. The next decade will be the intelligent systems decade,” said Matichuk. “Computers, by being extremely efficient, can appear to be very intelligent.”
AI will eventually do away with the frustrating number-punching options associated with telephone services, and subsequent complaints about lack of human assistance and voice-mail circus, he said.
“You may still not be talking to a person, but the machine will be indistinguishable from a person. It will speak to you in a natural language and provide solutions. And for most people, that’s all that matters.”
With AI, much of the business world will operate in a virtual environment. “You will go to a virtual environment and interact with virtual agents that seem real,” Matichuk said. “At first it will be like the Wild West, where anything is possible.” In such a world, laws and security measures will be required to maintain order, he said.
Artificial intelligence is not new. Its early days date back to the ’50s with such games as computer chess and in later years, it was used in robotic toys. Today, it is used in voice-recognition software, planning software and Internet search engines.
It is also found in automatic braking systems, in automatic focusing on cameras, computer systems that recognize credit-card fraud, and tax preparation software. In the medical field, AI is the base of dexterous robotic arms for assisting surgery.
The business community has been slow to accept AI, viewing the technology as a creation primarily for the entertainment industry, Matichuk said.
AI was popularized by science fiction with Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Lt.-Commander Data (AI in the form of a human being), and film director Steven Spielberg has made a movie entitled Artificial Intelligence, scheduled for release this summer.
“With all the Hollywood hype, the business community was not initially willing to accept AI, but it is now re-entering the public psyche,” Matichuk, said.
With improved algorithms (or codes), more computing memory and faster computers, methods for building AI systems are resulting in a software revolution, he said.
Computer gaming alone is a multi-million industry, with estimates indicating that, at any given time, there are nine million people playing online games. “By 2004, there will be about 55 million onliners,” Matichuk said. “We are living in an interactive world.”
In business, AI is used for automating, integrating and extending existing systems, a plus when providing customers with quick delivery of products and services, Matichuk said.
“The ability to reason is the key,” he said. “You want an intelligent agent to find a path. So use a reasoning, or AI engine to solve the problem.”
For example, AI will enable a company to find customer records in a number of different systems, or track down available products through a number of different sources.
“It queries all the systems to find the answer without a person having to know how to use all the systems,” he said. “It streamlines and simplifies data.”
This would allow quick tracing and delivery of a product to a customer, an important service in today’s competitive global world, Matichuk said. “We’re doing things in Internet time. It allows one system to talk to another without having to write code.”
Without the need to manually enter and cross-reference data, AI will result in job redundancy, said Matichuk.
“We have to adapt as a culture and as a society. We will have to find new things for these people to do. But isn’t it better to have people doing smart things?”
AI intelligence is like nuclear power, Matichuk added. “You can use the technology for horrible, awful things. But you can also use it for tremendously powerful good things.”
So where will AI take humanity?
“I believe we will design human beings so our neuro-circuitry interacts with computer circuitry,” said Matichuk, who has a University of Alberta degree in computing science and software design. “It will be very powerful, but I personally believe this is where humanity will end up.”