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How artificial intelligence is changing our lives

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The ability to create machine intelligence that mimics human thinking would be a tremendous scientific accomplishment, enabling humans to understand their own thought processes better. But even experts in the field won't promise when, or even if, this will happen.

"We're a long way from [humanlike AI], and we're not really on a track toward that because we don't understand enough about what makes people intelligent and how people solve problems," says Robert Lindsay, professor emeritus of psychology and computer science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and author of "Understanding Understanding: Natural and Artificial Intelligence."

"The brain is such a great mystery," adds Patrick Winston, professor of artificial intelligence and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. "There's some engineering in there that we just don't understand."

Instead, in recent years the definition of AI has gradually broadened. "Ten years ago, if you asked me if Watson [the computer that defeated all human opponents on the quiz show "Jeopardy!"] was intelligent, I'd probably argue that it wasn't because it was missing something," Dr. Winston says. But now, he adds, "Watson certainly is intelligent. It's a certain kind of intelligence."

The idea that AI must mimic the thinking process of humans has dropped away. "Creating artificial intelligences that are like humans is, at the end of the day, paving the cow paths," Mr. Saffo argues. "It's using the new technology to imitate some old thing."

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