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AI learning curve

Today's cover story by Peter Spotts begins the first of a three-part series on artificial intelligence (AI). The next two articles will run on consecutive Thursdays.

We hope to set down, in broad outline, the extent to which AI will affect the way we live in the first half of the next century. We acknowledge that the decentralized extent to which research in AI is occurring makes predictions little better than moving targets.

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It is clear AI touches so many facets of experience - scientific, biological, business, cultural, ethical, and religious - that the field warrants a fresh look. And at its margins, AI confronts the very nature of consciousness in the universe.

We will describe what artificial intelligence is, what it is not, and how, as computing power increases, our understanding of artificial intelligence will necessarily change as well.

We will look at practical applications of AI today, and likely applications in the not too distant future. If it's any reassurance, in the short term, smart machines won't replace most people in most occupations because they're not that smart yet. But quietly, companies are using powerful computers to do everything from grading student essays to trading stocks and fighting fraud. For these companies, the age of artificial intelligence isn't coming soon. It's here.

The final installment of our series will look at the ethical, moral, and psychological implications of AI. Will such a phenomenon be an identity threat for the current generation only, one that future generations take in stride?

What should we be thinking about if a machine appears to be thinking about us?

*Write to Ideas editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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