In the summer of 2005 a herd of twenty-three driverless cars barrelled across the Nevada desert, watched by scientists, engineers and nervous representatives of military funding agencies. Several hours later the first car crossed the finish line claiming a $2 million prize for the DARPA Grand Challenge and, naturally, the keen attention of DARPA itself. But it wasn’t just their interest that was piqued – journalists were also waiting to see if the whole field of artificial intelligence might emerge from the wilderness along with the beaten-up cars. John Markoff, writing for the New York Yimes, began his coverage of the event by describing AI as:
“…a technology field that for decades has overpromised and underdelivered… At its low point some computer scientists and software engineers avoided the term artificial intelligence for fear of being viewed as wild-eyed dreamers.”
It’s safe to say that artificial intelligence as a field has largely beaten off that image today, and is currently enjoying a golden age of investment, growth and discovery. In 2006 Ray Kurzweil wrote in his book ‘The Singularity’ that “the AI winter is long since over” – ‘AI winter’ being a term people use to describe catastrophic slumps that the field experiences following a period of prosperity. New techniques emerge that seem to solve problems better than ever before, forecasts and predictions are made about the future, hopes are raised, and then eventually the bubble of excitement bursts under the weight of its own expectations. The winter that follows is long – research funding is cut, tech startups shutter, businesses and governments withdraw interest, and the public loses their faith in the field. When Kurzweil wrote that the winter was over in 2006 he may have been talking specifically about the winter that took place in the 1990s, but it’s possible he was also talking more generally – many AI researchers I’ve spoken to believe this is it, that there will be no more winters. In 2012 Demis Hassabis, then the founder of a little-known company called DeepMind Technologies, declared that ‘the time is right for a push towards general AI’.
2017 is the summer solstice for artificial intelligence, the warmest and longest day, the kind of day that makes it feel like summer might last forever. But nothing lasts forever, and this season will pass like all the others have before it. The only thing that we can affect is how bitter and harsh the coming winter will be, and that is largely dictated by how badly let down people feel when the bubble finally bursts. What dream did we sell them, what did we let them believe, how did we advise them to act and spend their money? We need to start thinking about the image of artificial intelligence this year, and change it for the better.